MOSCOW -- After basking in international acclaim at the European summit in Paris, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev came home to a two-front attack yesterday from Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin and from a group of conservative parliamentarians.
Mr. Yeltsin challenged Mr. Gorbachev to a contest the Soviet president probably could not win: a national referendum on the expanded powers for his presidency that he has demanded to keep political and economic order.
"We keep saying 'the people will not understand,' 'the people do not need this' and 'the people are waiting,' " Mr. Yeltsin told reporters at the Russian parliament.
"We are so used to cliches. If we want to know whether or not the people want a full presidency for Gorbachev, let's ask the people -- that is, hold a referendum," Mr. Yeltsin said.
Mr. Yeltsin's remark was apparently intended more as a symbolic political challenge than as a serious, practical proposal. But a political scientist, Vladimir V. Kazantsev, endorsed the idea of a referendum on the Gorbachev proposals in an interview aired on the main television news program last night.
The Russian populist outranks the Soviet president by a margin of more than 2-to-1 in most popularity polls, and the gap is still growing.
Mr. Yeltsin has been elected by a landslide two years in a row, first to the Soviet parliament and then to the Russian parliament, which in turn chose him as its chairman. He intends to hold a referendum on a new Russian Federation constitution in the next few months and then to run for the republic's first directly elected presidency.
Mr. Gorbachev, by contrast, while permitting the first contested elections since the 1920s, has never submitted himself to a popular vote.
Any referendum on the enlarged powers sought by Mr. `f Gorbachev would be, in effect, a vote of confidence in him and his performance. Polls suggest that while Mr. Gorbachev's foreign policy achievements and political democratization are still ranked highly by the public, the chaotic, shortage-ridden economy has sent his rating plummeting over the past two years.
While Mr. Yeltsin attacks Mr. Gorbachev for clinging to centralized power over the 15 republics, conservatives attack him for the opposite: failing to preserve strong central control over the Soviet Union.
In an interview with the conservative daily Sovietskaya Rossiya, one of the leaders of the traditionalist bloc in the Supreme Soviet, Soyuz (Union), threatened to try to have the president ousted at the Congress of People's Deputies opening Dec. 17.
"If the president finally carries out his promises to avert a breakup of the country and begins to restore order, we will give him our full support," said army officer Viktor I. Alksnis, who gained notoriety by clashing with Mr. Gorbachev at the Supreme Soviet last week.
"But if this [the government shake-up] turns out to be yet another verbal maneuver, we will demand his resignation," he told the newspaper. "Thirty days would be enough time to decide if words are backed up with deeds, or everything stays as it was."
The Soyuz faction in the congress has a loose membership of about 500 of the 2,250 deputies. But far from all of them would be likely to vote to oust Mr. Gorbachev, for whom the right wing has yet to produce a credible alternative.
The threat represented by Mr. Alksnis is not related to his clout with most voters but his clout with the army and conservative Russians in non-Russian republics who complain of ethnic discrimination.
Recent days have seen a number of physical and political clashes between local nationalists and army units in Latvia, where Mr. Alksnis lives, and the other Baltic republics.