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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Yeltsin, A Soft Sell, Hard Choice

The word inside the meeting hall of the Great Kremlin Palace this week is that President Boris Yeltsin has a new strategist and master of ceremonies for this eighth session of the Congress of People's Deputies, namely his tricky liberal lawyer, Sergei Shakhrai.


The jury is still out on whether Shakhrai - the lawyer who defended Yeltsin's cause during the trial of the Communist Party last year - will do any better than his predecessor, Gennady Burbulis, at Russia's last political jamboree in December. There, Yeltsin lost his reformist prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, and control over the four most important ministries - Defense, Security, Interior and Foreign.


But Yeltsin's style on Thursday, and the tone of his speech, spoke of Shakhrai's more calculating approach. In what appeared to be a last offer of the olive branch, Yeltsin scolded the legislators in a schoolmasterly way, asking them to step back from the brink of confrontation and cut a deal with him.


Shakhrai repeatedly popped up on the floor to put forward the presidential view on debates, and several times conferred with Yeltsin on the podium. The insider's word - again - was that on Wednesday Shakhrai had to restrain Yeltsin on several occasions from responding to the slings and arrows being loosed at him by the Congress.


Yeltsin's overtures may have sounded rich to the deputies, who had heard Yeltsin speaking of a "final option" in the lead up to the Congress. But the contrast with last December, when Russia's blunt president came out with all guns blazing, was clear.


It is hard, of course, to tell whether the new softly-softly tack will have any better effect than Yeltsin's guns in December. It could well prove to be only the calm before a storm in which the "final option" - a barely concealed code word for direct presidential rule - is actually invoked. and even if the current deal designed to broker a truce between the two sides is approved when the deputies vote on it Friday, it involves substantial losses for the president. But for two days, at least, the president has been seen to give a belligerent Congress every opportunity to say its piece.


There is a logic to this. Shakhrai may be calculating that the Congress is not only a headache for Yeltsin, but also for the legislature's leaders. For if anything is certain about the unwieldy 1, 033-member body, it is that much of the time they do not themselves know what it is that they want until they have already voted on it. They might be swayed just enough for Yeltsin to be able to live with them. But there is also cause for skepticism - since the Congress has yet to vote for the president on anything.