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Russian Deal Gives Yeltsin Time

Reform compromise preserves government, but postpones resolution of constitutional crisis

THE Russian government and Congress of People's Deputies have backed off from a confrontation that threatened to throw radical economic reform into reverse and plunge the country into crisis.

"The Congress expressed clearly its support for government policies.... The government now has a free hand" to pursue radical reforms, said Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar at a news conference yesterday.

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Mr. Gaidar's unequivocal assessment of the situation is not shared by many others, however. Few involved in the dispute over the pace of reform are satisfied with the compromise worked out between the government and Congress, embodied by Wednesday's adoption of a muddled declaration of support for current economic policies.

While the declaration allowed the government to drop its threat to resign, it failed to establish what branch of government is responsible for economic reform, leaving room for more wrangling.

"The worst scenario for both sides is to leave the Congress with no clear results," says Sergei Shakhrai, a close adviser to President Boris Yeltsin and a former deputy prime minister. "It preserves the illusion that the government is in charge, but real reform still can be blocked."

For the staunch supporters of President Yeltsin's government in the legislature, the Congress's decision does not give a clear enough show of support for the government and its policies. On the other hand, former Communists, who make up a sizable block in the Congress, are upset that radical reform is proceeding at all, and they want the legislature to have a greater say in the matter. Meanwhile, those in the middle are now willing to yield to Yeltsin, but still want more done to protect those hardest hi t by reforms.

The crisis began Saturday when parliament adopted amendments to a resolution on economic reform that requires the government spend more than 1 trillion rubles ($1 billion) on increased social welfare payments. It also voted to deprive Yeltsin of emergency presidential powers by July 1. The government in turn offered to resign Monday, saying it could not comply with Congress's plan because it would produce a catastrophe.

The vote gives Yeltsin the power to rule by decree until Dec. 1, which many government supporters consider crucial to the success of reforms. Congress also effectively condoned the continuation of "shock therapy." But the declaration also clouds the picture by obliging the government to fulfill Congress's decisions adopted Saturday.

Perhaps most important, from the government's viewpoint, the declaration clears the way for Russian recognition in world financial organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, and virtually ensures delivery of a promised $24-billion Western aid package. Some government members say the declaration leaves a lot to be desired, but add that it gives them room to maneuver.

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"Of course it's a half-measure," says Fyodor Shelov-Kovedayev, a deputy foreign minister, "but it gives the government time."

But more time will not necessarily improve the government's position, argues Mr. Shakhrai, the presidential adviser. Battles between the government and legislature will continue until a new Russian constitution is adopted that determines the responsibilities of the different branches of government he said.

Since 1989 the Congress has been unable to make much progress on adopting a new constitution, and few breakthroughs are expected in the current session.

"In the given case there is only one way out - an appeal to the people," Shakhrai said. "If the president is supported in a referendum then new parliamentary elections must be held. If not, then there should be a new presidential election."

Many government members and legislators, however, consider a referendum potentially destabilizing and are eager to avoid direct confrontation.

Whether or not a referendum occurs could depend greatly on the many middle-of-the-road deputies in the Congress. A sizable number of moderate deputies, including Anatoly Kalinich, voted for both Saturday's amendments and Wednesday's declaration of support for reform.

The moderates will go along with government reforms, Mr. Kalinich explained, but feel more must be done to shield the population.

Yeltsin, who has remained above the fray in Congress by avoiding sessions this week, has pledged to make changes to satisfy moderates. If that happens, there is no reason the government and Congress will not be able to coexist, Kalinich says.

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