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Yeltsin's adversary rejects truce plan

RUSSIA'S chaotic parliament managed to agree on something yesterday: its parent body, the Congress of People's Deputies, will meet next Wednesday. The session will finally bring to a head President Boris Yeltsin's bitter argument with the Soviet-era assembly over who rules Russia.

Judging from remarks made by the parliament's conservative chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, yesterday, the Congress will be even more turbulent than the one last December which forced Mr Yeltsin to drop his radical prime minister, Yegor Gaidar.

The President went on national television last month to offer a truce in the power struggle between himself and parliament so that Russia could concentrate on economic reform. But yesterday Mr Khasbulatov rejected his olive branch out of hand and accused him of being aggressive.

'There cannot be any question of adopting this document (the Yeltsin truce plan), which constitutes an ultimatum,' he told deputies. He said the constitutional crisis was a result of 'extremely aggressive behaviour of the executive authorities (the presidency). The potential of this authority is almost over and it is trying to destabilise the legislature.'

Mr Yeltsin's representative in parliament, Vladimir Shumeiko, said the truce plan, whereby both the President and parliament would agree not to encroach on each other's powers until a special constitutional assembly had time to write a new constitution for post-Communist Russia, was only a suggestion. The President had expected to hear the deputies' ideas too so a joint accord could be reached but, despite having had two weeks to think about it, they had come up with nothing.

Mr Yeltsin was freely elected in 1991 when the Russian people also expressed their wish that he be a strong executive leader like the US or French presidents rather than a figurehead as in Germany. But contradictions arise because the old Soviet constitution is still valid and that gives ultimate power to the the Congress.

Mr Khasbulatov has accused Mr Yeltsin of trying to become a dictator. The reality is that the President's attempts at free-market reform are being obstructed by the assembly, which insists on issuing credits to lame-duck industries when inflation is raging and which is dragging its feet on privatisation. US officials have said privately that Russian reform is more endangered than at any time since the 1991 hardline coup attempt and foreign investors are being cautious if not actually fleeing.

Radical supporters of Mr Yeltsin cannot understand why he did not long ago simply introduce direct presidential rule which would have swept aside the Congress. But the President is trying to play by the rules.

If next week's Congress fails to endorse a constitutional accord, he wants a referendum on 11 April when Russians will be asked to decide the future political structure. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has said it is behind the President because he would give the cabinet a free hand to get on with reform. But technically only Congress can call a referendum, so Mr Yeltsin is likely to be frustrated. Then he may have to consider what he calls his 'final option', widely taken to mean rule by decree.