The move, side-stepping the Communist-dominated Congress, was immediately denounced by his opponents as 'criminal'.
Mr Yeltsin decreed that the new constituent assembly, consisting of two representatives each from Russia's 88 regions, would meet on 5 June. The assembly may agree the constitution, but the decree did not make it clear whether it will have the power to make it legally binding.
Under rules drawn up in the Brezhnev era, the parliament which has obstructed Mr Yeltsin's reforms is the only body allowed to change the constitution.
Mr Yeltsin's decree outraged the conservative chairman of parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, who has accused the President of cutting him out of the process of redesigning Russia's political system.
'It would be criminal for us to pass the new constitution by unconstitutional means,' Mr Khasbulatov said. 'A myth is being spread that the Congress of People's Deputies is unable to adopt the new constitution.'
At the same time, the government yesterday offered regional leaders financial incentives to persuade them to embrace Mr Yeltsin's reforms. 'Direct state support will be rendered to those regions which actively support reforms,' the Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, said.
The deputies, most of whom were sent to Congress, the parliament's parent body, by the Communist Party, lead a relatively privileged life in Moscow and have shown the same enthusiasm for abolishing themselves as a turkey might before Christmas. They are also trying to woo regional leaders and drawing up a rival constitution that would, for example, deny the President the right to dissolve the legislature.
There are, however, signs that they are on the defensive. Yesterday Oleg Rumyantsev, the MP responsible for the parliamentary draft constitution, criticised Mr Yeltsin for his 'philosophy of fighting to the death' but admitted that the President had some interesting ideas which might be incorporated into his text.
The constitution which Mr Yeltsin proposes would give Russia a political system similar to that in France, where the president is strong and the prime minister must answer to him or her as well as to parliament.
The ground-breaking aspect of Mr Yeltsin's draft constitution is that it would give more freedom to regions from Siberia to the Northern Caucasus than they have had before, either in Soviet or pre-revolutionary history.
Leading article, page 25Reuse content