MOSCOW — Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, launching a political preemptive strike on the eve of a critical session of Parliament, declared Sunday that his government intends to stick fast to its reform program despite mounting opposition and widespread hardships.
"Only one path has the right to exist today--the continuation of radical reforms," Yeltsin proclaimed. "To move forward through reforms toward a normal life--that is the main demand placed upon me by voters. . . . And I will not turn off that path. In my opinion, there is just no other choice today."
Speaking to about 3,000 ardent, applauding supporters at a new pro-government forum called the Popular Assembly of Citizens of Russia, Yeltsin did, however, acknowledge that some alterations are needed in his program of abrupt change from communism toward a market-driven economy.
The reforms, often compared to Poland's "shock therapy," have left an estimated 90% of Russians below the poverty line.
"Measures are being prepared to soften the harshness of the first phase of the reforms," Yeltsin said.
Apparently willing to lighten the tax burden on businesses in response to owners' desperate pleas, Yeltsin promised greater subsidies to state-owned companies and agriculture as well, thus backpedaling on earlier plans to stop government bankrolling of industry.
As they arrived for Sunday's assembly at the Rossiya Hotel near the Kremlin, many of the lawmakers, businessmen and other public figures who attended had to march through a human gantlet of anti-reform protesters at the entrance.
The protesters shouted verbal abuse at the passing participants, accusing some of not being Russian--"You're not Russian! Look at that face!"--and of betraying their country. Some pelted the ground near the participants with coins, shouting "Judas!" and "Come grab your blood money!"
And on the other side of the Kremlin, about 2,000 monarchists flying black-white-and-yellow flags, Cossacks and Communists rallied on Manezh Square to denounce Yeltsin and call for his "government of national treachery and poverty" to resign.
Moving to head off attacks on his team of economists expected to surface at the session of the Congress of People's Deputies that opens today, Yeltsin promised to bring top business people into Russia's leadership, continue reshuffling his Cabinet and hold open competition for candidates to fill ministerial posts.
In what he admitted was a dress rehearsal for his keynote speech at the Congress, Yeltsin also called firmly for retaining a strong presidency under the new Russian constitution that the Congress will consider, rather than shifting to a parliamentary system in which the president is a mere figurehead.
A parliamentary system, Yeltsin said, would mean "endless talk and political games with pseudo-democratic rituals. In times of crisis, such a policy is the equivalent of suicide. As president, I will never agree to such an option."
Yeltsin is bidding for at least three years of presidential rule, and officials predict that the basic power structure will become the main point of contention during the scheduled nine-day meeting of the Congress, Russia's highest governmental body.
Challenges to Yeltsin and his government are expected both from old-style Communist conservatives and from Yeltsin's former anti-Communist allies who now complain that his economic reforms are being carried out too mercilessly and without being thought through.
Participants in the assembly also said they feared a growing threat of violent public backlash and sought to use the new forum to forge powerful support for the government to offset popular tendencies toward rebellion.
"Isn't it possible that the angered and indignant people, having lost faith in everyone, will once again rise in a furious and senseless riot?" Arkady Volsky, chairman of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, said. "This assembly has been called to prevent that avalanche."
Yegor T. Gaidar, the chief architect of Yeltsin's economic reforms, was unfazed by signs of public opposition, saying that "as long as we're allowed to do our business, we can put up with whatever they say about us."
But he was concerned, he said, that the reforms could fail if Yeltsin's team did not launch a "frontal offensive" in all of the far-off Russian towns where local bureaucrats ignore Moscow's decrees.
Yeltsin's speech, which exhibited a new tendency to emphasize Russian patriotism, showed signs that, as a means of mustering more popular support, he is moving to appropriate some of the nationalist slogans used by his right-wing opponents.
Political scientist Andranik Migranyan commented: "In principle, if the authorities don't take over these slogans from the rightists, and thus win a certain part of society's support, especially in these tough times, then this government will have very little chance to make it."
Sergei Loiko, a reporter in The Times' Moscow bureau, contributed to this report.