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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Assembly Gathers to Shape a New Russia

About 700 delegates to a Constitutional Assembly will begin to formally shape post-Soviet Russia on Saturday in a conference that President Boris Yeltsin intends to dominate.

The meeting marks the culmination of a power struggle over who should rule Russia -- its president or legislature -- that has hamstrung attempts at reform for more than a year.

Delegates representing Russia's 88 regions and leading social and political groups will gather for the opening plenary session at 10 A. M. to hear Yeltsin present his draft proposal for a new charter.

The assembly will then break up into five panels to discuss possible amendments to the 133 articles of the president's draft, which would give the head of state sweeping powers that Yeltsin says are necessary to guarantee continued reform.

Yeltsin wants his draft to provide the basis for the assembly's work, rather than a rival prepared by parliament. Although he has said he is open to suggestions from all sides, the president is likely to resist a demand from leading members of parliament that their draft and the president's be combined into a compromise text. He is also likely to reject entirely a third proposal drafted by pro-communist political leaders.

The rules of the meeting would seem to give Yeltsin a decided advantage. Only a simple majority of participants in each of the five panels is needed to approve or reject each article of the constitution.

A presidential aide, Gennady Veretennikov, circulated a document this week showing that 55 percent of the assembly's participants already supported the president's draft.

Yeltsin will preside over the assembly's plenary sessions, while the five panels will be led by his appointees, many of whom are close presidential aides.

The panel representing federal government bodies will be headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Alexander Yakovlev, a leading lawyer.

The group representing Russia's 88 regions and the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg will be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai, the chief engineer of Yeltsin's draft, the head of Moscow's regional administration, Anatoly Tyazhlov, and Viktor Stepanov, the head of the legislature of the Karelian autonomous republic and a habitual Yeltsin opponent.

A panel of local government officials will be led by Yeltsin's head of local affairs, Deputy Prime Minister Yury Yarov, and Boris Zolotukhin, the pro-president deputy chairman of the parliament's legislative committee.

A group combining political parties, trade unions and other social organizations will be headed by St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak and Viktor Sheinis, another Yeltsin supporter who is deputy executive secretary of parliament's constitutional commission.

The fifth panel, of manufacturers and entrepreneurs, will be led by First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko, Yeltsin's top aide for political questions, and lawyer Sergei Alexeyev, another of the authors of Yeltsin's draft.

The five panels have until June 12 to propose amendments to a special working commission that is also predominantly pro-Yeltsin -- of its 43 members, 30 are either close aides or trusted allies of the president. This commission will draft the final version of the constitution, which Yeltsin is scheduled to present for approval to a plenary meeting of all delegates on June 16.

Yeltsin's opponents in the legislature have attacked his assembly and are unwilling to cede control of the constitutional reform process to him. Under Russia's existing basic law, approving a new charter is the prerogative of the legislature.

Parliament on Friday made clear that it intends to get involved, passing a resolution that calls for their constitutional commission and Yeltsin to combine their drafts, taking into account the suggestions of regional leaders, by June 30.

The legislature's constitutional commission on Friday began combining the two drafts, discussing the adoption of 37 articles from Yeltsin's charter into the parliament version.

But it remains to be seen whether Yeltsin will be forced to heed the demands of the split and weakened legislature.

On Thursday, parliament decided to send speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov to represent it at the assembly, although he has made it clear that he does not expect the meeting to produce the charter for a presidential republic that Yeltsin wants.

"A presidential republic is unacceptable for Russia. The president should no longer be the head of executive power", Khasbulatov told parliament Friday. "The executive branch should be led by a government subordinate to parliament".

Constitutional Court chairman Valery Zorkin, who also plans to attend the meeting, cautioned Yeltsin not to force the assembly to accept only his version of the new charter.

One prominent Russian political figure who will most likely not be present on Saturday is Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who has been rallying the opposition against the president since breaking with Yeltsin in April.

This week Rutskoi accused Yeltsin of lying and being a tool of the West.

Yeltsin has removed Rutskoi of all duties and has made it nearly impossible for him to work in his Kremlin office. Moreover, Yeltsin's draft constitution makes no mention of a vice president.

In a move demonstrating lawmaker's overwhelmingly anti-Yeltsin mood, parliament on Friday overwhelmingly adopted a motion to protect Rutskoi, voting 152-7 to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of Yeltsin's moves.

Yeltsin got a vote of confidence Friday from industrialist leader Arkady Volsky, one of the leaders of the centrist Civic Union alliance. Volsky told Russian television that this group would support the president at the assembly.