Yeltsin duels for power in Moscow: President tries to regain initiative and save market reforms

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The Independent Online
A YEAR and a half after he clambered on to a tank to defeat the last spasm of Soviet Communism, President Boris Yeltsin faced what his spokesman called a 'firing squad' yesterday - a bitter onslaught on his authority led by his erstwhile ally against the 1991 putsch.

Sitting stony-faced and alone at a desk above the podium in the Great Kremlin Palace, Mr Yeltsin listened in silence to a barrage of criticism on the opening day of an emergency session of the Congress of People's Deputies.

Leading the attack was his former ally, the Congress chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov. He and other parliamentary leaders savaged President Yeltsin's free-market policies and vowed to yield no ground in a bitter quarrel over the division of power.

Mr Khasbulatov, whose friendship with the President has turned into a personal feud, condemned attempts to drag the military into the escalating power struggle. These were 'artificial and cynical attempts to destabilise the situation'.

President Yeltsin remains far more popular than Mr Khasbulatov or the parliament but, weakened by tactical blunders and Russia's deep economic crisis, he is scrambling to regain the initiative and is more feeble politically than at any time since the 1991 putsch.

'The congress is pushing the President towards deep and tragic deliberations over what decision he must take to save reform and democracy,' said Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov. 'The President faces a firing squad set up by the parliamentary leadership'. He gave no hint of what such a decision might involve but it follows a warning last week by Mr Yeltsin that he might resort to a 'final option' to salvage his authority and market reforms.

Underlying the personal animosity between Mr Yeltsin and Mr Khasbulatov, as well as the broader struggle for power, are starkly different visions of how this power should be used. Elected under Communism in 1990, the Congress and smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, have tried repeatedly to block market reforms, which many deputies condemn as a Western-inspired plot to destroy Russia.

'The idea of an effective market economy is nonsense,' said deputy chairman Nikolai Ryabov in a bluntly worded speech yesterday. 'Parliament favours setting up a socially-orientated market economy to serve the needs of the people.' For Mr Yeltsin and his supporters that is shorthand for a return to the command economy of the Soviet era.

The Congress was called last month to try to settle a crippling constitutional row that erupted after its last session ended in December with claims by both sides that the dispute had been resolved with an agreement to hold a referendum.

Mr Khasbulatov and a majority of Congress deputies want to cancel the referendum, which will be discussed today. Mr Yeltsin has suggested dropping the poll and put forward two proposals that would delineate the division of authority and avoid a vote. Both have been rejected.

Yesterday's session began with a lengthy debate over the agenda. Mr Yeltsin escaped attempts by hardliners to begin impeachment proceedings but was rebuffed on his most recent power-sharing offer.

'The President cannot be regarded as the equal of Congress,' said Mr Ryabov. Mr Yeltsin has sought to wrest control of the Central Bank from parliament and deny deputies any say in who should sit in the cabinet.

Despite the ominous warnings from his spokesman, Mr Yeltsin repeated earlier pleas for a compromise. He denied suggestions that he might disband the legislature and impose emergency rule: 'These rumours are being spread by conservative forces.'

Militant hardliners seem almost to relish the prospect of emergency rule. Alexander Sterligov, a former KGB general and leader of the extremist Russian National Assembly, told supporters to prepare for possible military action. Opinion polls, however, suggest that Mr Yeltsin would face little opposition if he declared emergency rule.

'The Muppets', page 10

Leading article, page 28

President Bill Clinton wants an early meeting of G7 finance and foreign ministers to discuss aid for Russia. Mr Clinton is anxious to avoid going empty handed to his first summit with President Boris Yeltsin on 4 April, and wants to bolster Mr Yeltsin's political position, page 10.