But he also assured the Congress of People's Deputies, a body elected under communism and still dominated by conservatives, that he had no intention of leading Russia towards unfettered capitalism.
The Congress, which meets twice a year, began its latest session yesterday with failed attempts by hardline deputies to get Mr Yeltsin impeached and to schedule a no-confidence vote against the government. More difficult battles, though, lie ahead.
'The country must be protected from the political hysteria whipped up by anti-reformists,' said Mr Yeltsin. 'A breathing space is vitally necessary for Russia, if only for a year or one-and-a-half years.
'Political adventurers hope that an ungoverned Russia can become their easy prey,' he said, speaking inside the Kremlin from a podium still decorated with the hammer and sickle. 'They will turn the country into an arena of ruthless civil war.' Behind him was large cardboard Russian flag, needed to conceal a bust of Lenin still in place in the wall.
President Yeltsin's firm stand against the most rabid opponents of change was combined with a clear attempt to woo the middle ground in a Congress fragmented into shifting, often volatile political groups. Russia, he promised, had no intention of abandoning state involvement in the economy. 'We favour a strict and coherent state and industrial policy that would lead us along the golden path between the freedoms of the market and regulatory role for the state,' he said.
Farm land must be sold off and many state firms privatised but 'the state sector will remain in place'.
Such words will comfort deputies sympathetic to the views of Arkady Volsky and his Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, composed of state-
factory directors who demand greater support for Russia's crumbling industrial sector. Industrial production this year will fall by 20 per cent. The support of Mr Volsky's group, the government's most coherent critic, would allow President Yeltsin to resist the assaults of his fiercest enemies and rally other centrist factions. Another potential, if untrustworthy and highly critical, ally is Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Congress' powerful speaker. He said the Russian leader's reforms were leading the country into beggary, and sharply attacked the acting-Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, for neglecting the suffering inflicted by inflation now running at more than 2,000 per cent this year.
But he stopped short of rejecting Mr Yeltsin's demand for more powers, saying Congress and the government were still 'doomed to co-operate'. 'The president is safe,' commented Mr Yeltsin's political adviser Sergei Stankevich. But he was less optimistic about Mr Gaidar. 'His chances are 50-50.' Even if Congress refuses to confirm him as Prime Minister, though, he could well stay on for several months.
Offering what he called a compromise for breaking Russia's political deadlock, Mr Yeltsin asked the congress deputies to forfeit their legislative duties and concentrate solely on amending and ultimately replacing Russia's current constitution.
He also asked that the Supreme Soviet, the smaller, sitting parliament, in effect, give up its right to amend laws submitted the president. 'The president will make major decisions on economics and bear responsibility for his decisions,' Mr Yeltsin said.
In return, he promised not to ask for an extension of his right to rule by decree. But since his special powers have already expired with the start of the Congress, he conceded little.
Conservatives were duly unimpressed. 'Behind the speech there is only emptiness,' said Sergei Baburin, leader of the Russian Unity faction. 'No promises have been kept and none of the goals which have been proclaimed were achieved.' Reform, he said, had turned Russia into an explosive disaster zone similar to Weimar Germany on the eve of Nazism.
President Yeltsin conceded that Russia's dash towards the free market, begun in January with the freeing of most prices, had brought great pain. He promised to strengthen welfare protection and increase interest rates on savings. 'We must say directly that for the majority of the population the reforms are for the moment only increasing their problems.'
But he pleaded for patience: 'The house is still being built and is surrounded by scaffolding, heaps of rubbish and building material, but it would be a big mistake take the results so far as the final outcome.'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content