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Yeltsin Moves to Consolidate Position at Home and in Region

President seeks new Russian constitution and wins the approval of the Commonwealth of Independent States to explore economic union

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin is hoping a flurry of political initiatives will bring stability not only to Russia, but to other former Soviet republics as well.

In recent days, Mr. Yeltsin has accelerated his drive for a new constitution, which he says is necessary for Russia's continued transformation into a market democracy.

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And in trying to smooth the way for his domestic agenda, Yeltsin has also met initial success in addressing economic and political problems on Russia's borders. He has won a pledge from other former Soviet republics, now grouped in the Commonwealth of Independent States, to explore the formation of an economic union. In addition, a summit meeting with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze produced a commitment to seek a cease-fire in Georgia's civil war.

Yeltsin's political offensive has caused rifts among his domestic opponents, but the president's ability to achieve a breakthrough is nevertheless far from assured.

His harshest critics, particularly Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, continue to fight a rear guard action, denouncing the president's moves as a disguised attempt to reintroduce an authoritarian regime in Russia.

"Everything is being done to distract attention from their own failings, helplessness, and errors in domestic and external policy," Mr. Khasbulatov said at a press luncheon on Saturday.

Since his policies won popular backing in the April 25 referendum, Yeltsin has sought to overcome parliament's opposition to his reforms by introducing a new Basic Law that gives the chief executive sweeping powers at the expense of the legislative branch's authority. Bypass parliament

To promulgate such a constitution, the president wants to convene on a Constituent Assembly June 5, which would comprise representatives from all Russian regions. The assembly would finalize the wording of, and possibly adopt, the new constitution by the end of June. Such a move would circumvent the Congress of People's Deputies - the highest body of power under the acting Basic Law, which was adopted during the Soviet era.

Parliament leaders are promoting their own draft for a new constitution, featuring an executive branch with significantly less power than that proposed in Yeltsin's document.

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With the existence of two draft constitutions, the political battle between executive and legislative authority has entered a "race of nerves," says Sergei Shakhrai, the president's point man on constitutional reforms.

And it would appear that some parliamentary leaders are starting to flinch. Over the weekend, the opposition suffered a blow when Deputy Parliament Speaker Nikolai Ryabov, an important figure in the anti-Yeltsin coalition, defected to the president's side. Speaking May 14 in Parliament, Mr. Ryabov said a Constituent Assembly was "justified," the Tass news agency reported.

Mr. Khasbulatov played down Ryabov's surprise action, saying differences of opinion had always existed among legislative leaders.

At the same time, he said the adoption of a new constitution "may lead to the final collapse of the Russian Federation."

"And that means that those nuclear, biological, chemical, and other types of weapons that are very dangerous to the environment and to other nations may end up out of control," Khasbulatov added.

The parliament, meanwhile, wants Russia's Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of Yeltsin's action plan. Court Chairman Valery Zorkin has implied that convening a Constituent Assembly to adopt a new constitution would violate the law.

Yeltsin, however, is concentrating on his agenda.

Following a May 14 meeting in Moscow, Yeltsin hailed the decision of most Commonwealth leaders to pursue an economic union, calling it a "kind of turning point in the life of the Commonwealth." Economic union

A stronger Commonwealth would facilitate economic recovery, which in turn could diminish the opposition to Russia's reforms, Yeltsin's aides say. But the economic integration plan still must clear some hurdles.

For one, the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan refused to sign the declaration. In addition, some former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine, remain suspicious of Russia, fearing the plan is an attempt to reform the Russian empire. Yeltsin went out of his way to dispel such a notion.

"We are for rapprochement, but not through force, not through diktat, but on a voluntary basis," he said.

In a similar spirit, the Russian president in his Friday meeting with Mr. Shevardnadze sought to ease tension in Russian-Georgian relations.

Many Georgian officials claim the Russian Army is backing rebels fighting Georgian government forces in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia.

After the meeting, Yeltsin and Shevardnadze announced their intention to work for a cease-fire in Abkhazia starting May 20. They also agreed to establish a working-group that would lay the groundwork for a bilateral treaty, which the two sides hope to complete by mid-June.

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