Yeltsin bruised but victorious: Andrew Higgins in Moscow reports on hardliners' failure to crush reforms

PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin yesterday narrowly escaped an attempt by Russia's conservative Congress of People's Deputies to slash his decision-making powers, a scheme denounced by reformers as a 'constitutional coup'.

But the hair's-breadth margin of his victory, along with a defeat on several other motions, left him bruised and promises further fierce battles over the fate of Russia's radical free-market reform.

A crucial showdown between opponents and supporters of President Yeltsin reached an inconclusive climax with a secret ballot in the Great Kremlin Palace on a series of proposed changes to Russia's constitution.

Conservatives in the Congress, a body elected in 1990 and still stacked with hardline communists and belligerent nationalists, managed to secure the backing of a large majority of delegates for the most important change but fell four votes short of the necessary two-thirds margin. The amendment received 690 votes instead of the 694 needed to reduce Mr Yeltsin to what the deputy prime minister, Alexander Shokhin, had warned would be an impotent figurehead, with 'powers similar to those of the British Queen'.

The Congress Speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, one of the government's most influential and persistent critics, described the vote as a triumph for parliament and warned Mr Yeltsin: 'If you continue to strive for absolute rule, this phyrrhic victory will be the last and will lead to the destruction of our country.'

But reformists, many of whom said they boycotted the vote in protest at a decision making the ballot secret, also cheered: 'I think this is a real and major victory,' said Gleb Yakunin. Others were more sanguine and several conceded there now seemed scant chance of the Congress confirming the Acting Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, in his post.

The constitutional amendment put forward by conservatives would have sharply defined - and limited - executive authority. Had it been approved, Mr Yeltsin would have had to seek approval from Russia's smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, for all important cabinet appointments and dismissals. Mr Yeltsin had vowed never to submit to such restrictions, saying he would either declare presidential rule or call a referendum to approve suspension of the Congress.

Speaking on the eve of the vote, he told deputies: 'The adoption of the amendments would mean a turnaround of 180 degrees and reverse the development of Russia's statehood.'

While defeated on the most important vote yesterday, conservatives managed to secure the passage of three other constitutional amendments that muddy the division of power between the legislature and the executive. All had been opposed by Mr Yeltsin. These require the President to sumbit all proposals for the creation, reorganisation or elimination of ministries to the Supreme Soviet. They also make the cabinet 'accountable' to the Congress, the President and the Supreme Soviet. How such accountability should be enforced, however, was left undecided.

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