MOSCOW — Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin hurled Russia's huge weight into the debate on the Soviet future Tuesday, insisting that republics join a "single system" and denying that Russia will dominate it.
But conservatives said they have enough votes to torpedo the plan to transform the Soviet Union into a cluster of sovereign states.
With a ballot scheduled this morning on the blueprint for urgent power devolution--drawn up by Yeltsin, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and leaders of nine other Soviet republics--a rising chorus of right-wing anger was the leitmotif in the chamber and corridors of the Congress of People's Deputies.
"Of course they will try to liquidate the constitution of the U.S.S.R., but they will not succeed. They will not get the two-thirds of the votes needed," Col. Viktor I. Alksnis of the right-wing Soyuz faction predicted.
Alexander G. Zhuravlev, a deputy from Byelorussia, said: "We may see a miracle happen today, when the Congress wakes up and takes power away from Mikhail Gorbachev. The designs that are being proposed are not fit for building a country."
The proposals, reversing a heritage of government centralization that dates to the Romanov czars and even earlier, would grant each Soviet republic the right to determine its own level of participation in a future political, economic and military alliance, although much about the plan remains vague.
Leaving the debate Tuesday evening, a stern-looking Gorbachev dropped a heavy hint that he will do away with the Congress--which he founded in 1989 as the supreme body of political power in the country--if it does not adopt the documents put in front of it. "Then, the Congress will have exhausted itself," Gorbachev said in an impromptu press conference held outside the glass-and-marble Kremlin Palace of Congresses, as TV crews shoved and scuffled to get closer.
In other developments:
* In a decision of potentially great import, two judicial committees ruled that the suggested governmental revamp is so sweeping that, as required by the Soviet constitution, it must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the 2,250-member Congress.
But only about 1,900 legislators have shown up to take part in this week's Kremlin proceedings; when Monday's session convened to put the hastily drawn-up power-sharing plan on the agenda, it was approved by only 1,350 members. To pass, it needs at least 1,500 votes. "Just by not showing up, a deputy will in effect vote against it," said Roald Z. Sagdeyev, former head of his country's space research program and a progressive who favors the power shift.
* In the Caucasus, 20 people were injured in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi when riot police, firing warning shots in the air, clashed with demonstrators demanding the resignation of Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
* During a meeting with Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, said the situation in his country is "rapidly worsening" and did not exclude the possibility of people "flooding the streets," the Tass news agency reported.
* Azerbaijan, which adopted a declaration of independence last Friday, rejected as unconstitutional a similar proclamation by the Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic enclave, which declared itself an "Armenian republic" on Monday.
* The Ukraine, which proclaimed independence Aug. 24, named its first defense minister, air force Gen. Konstantin Morozov, an ethnic Russian. It has already assumed "political" command of all Soviet army units based there, and it intends to create a Ukrainian national guard.
Yeltsin, taking the floor at the Congress for the first time, tried to reassure the other republics that Russia--which has half the Soviet population and more than two-thirds of its territory--would not exploit the new power arrangement as a cover for its imperialist designs.
"The Russian state, which has chosen democracy and freedom, will never be an empire, or a younger or older brother (to other republics)," Yeltsin said, his baritone booming through the great hall.
In the new union, he said to applause, Russia "will be an equal among equals."
Building an economic union on the ruins of Soviet socialism, Yeltsin told the Congress, has now become critical, as well as "measures for survival as far as food is concerned."
In an interview with the Cable News Network, Yeltsin said that all but one of the 15 republics--he did not identify the holdout--is ready to sign an economic cooperation agreement that would replace the state-run planning and production system, in ruins after six years of Gorbachev's perestroika program.
"But, I believe, we need to talk some more about that, and maybe 15 will join," he said, holding out hope that the "common economic space" evoked by Gorbachev and the republic leaders may coincide precisely with present-day Soviet territory.