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No Clear Path for Yeltsin's New Constitution

Despite the assembly's strong vote of approval, the Russian president must still win over wary regions and republics to get his new basic law

PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin is claiming victory after Russia's Constitutional Assembly approved the text of a new draft Basic Law.

But while the battle surrounding the draft constitution's wording may be decided, the war over ratification is only beginning.

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Shortly before the assembly approved the constitutional text on July 12 by a significant margin - 433 for, 62 against, and 63 abstentions - Mr. Yeltsin told the delegates, "We are on the right path. We have found consensus."

But many political analysts in Moscow do not share Yeltsin's optimistic assessment. "The optimism of Yeltsin's speech will be realized only when the draft wins the approval from the subjects of the [Russian] Federation," wrote political commentator Ravil Zarinov in the July 13 edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda. Following its adoption, the draft was sent to the federation subjects for review and, perhaps, approval.

The federative structure of Russia has been a source of deep division among the nation's territories, analysts say. Many leaders from both the Russian-dominated regions and the autonomous republics, or nominal ethnic homelands, criticize the way the draft distributes authority.

Given the discontent, some observers say the most important aspect of the July 12 assembly decision was not the number of votes for the new draft constitution but the significance of those who failed to support it.

"Approximately 150 people [including delegates who did not attend the session] didn't vote for the text, and these votes carry a lot of weight because they belong to the territories," said Sergei Parkhomenko, commentator for the Sevodnya daily.

Perhaps most alarming for Yeltsin was the fact that only eight of the 20 autonomous republics backed the new constitution. Some republican delegations - including those from Tatarstan and Tuva - boycotted the July 12 session. In addition, about one-third of the regions did not support the draft. "I don't think it'll lead anywhere. It's a dead-end process," Rafael Khakimov, a top aide to Tatarstan President Mintimir Shamiyev, told the Monitor.

`EVEN if a new constitution is adopted, I'm pessimistic. I've seen what's happened to the Federation Treaty. The same will happen to a new constitution," Mr. Khakimov continued. Many autonomous republics complain Moscow is ignoring provisions of the Federation Treaty, signed in March 1992, which expanded republican rights.

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The draft constitution designates republics as "sovereign states" that enjoy slightly more rights than regions. Reacting to perceived favoritism, several regions - led by the Ural Mountain area of Sverdlovsk - have taken steps to elevate their status to that of a republic.

To keep the process moving, Yeltsin has had to repeatedly increase incentives for regional authorities to go along with the new draft. Before the July 12 session, the Russian president adjusted the text to grant regional authorities law-making powers and greater control over the taxation system. That, in turn, has angered republican officials.

And despite the addition of powers, some regional leaders are still unhappy. "I'll never approve the clause that the republics are sovereign states within Russia," says Valery Novikov, leader of the Krasnoyarsk region.

In the face of such opposition, quick ratification of the constitutional draft in its present form is far from a given. Realizing they can gain even more privileges if they hold out, many regions and republics are likely to continue squabbling over Russia's federalism, said Vladimir Todres, another Sevodnya commentator.

"To reach a compromise, both sides are lacking the most important thing: desire. Why should they stop shaking the tree when more and more plums are falling to the ground?" he wrote July 13.

Ideally, pro-Yeltsin forces would like the draft approved by Russia's highest legislative body, the Congress of People's Deputies. But they are considering all options in case the Congress proves recalcitrant.

The Constitutional Assembly has been converted into a permanent political structure, and will meet in August to discuss methods of ratification, Yeltsin says. That keeps open the possibility that the president could try to vest the body with the power to ratify the new constitution.

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