Confused Soviet Referendum

March 15, 1991

Watch out for Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Kirghizia in Sunday's Soviet elections. Instead of asking the question President Mikhail S. Gorbachev wants to ask -- should the Soviet Union be a "renewed federation of equal, sovereign republics?" -- those three states want their voters to decide whether they should remain part of the federation at all.

A "no" vote could produce a chain reaction and unglue the empire the czars, Lenin and Stalin forged together. Even a lukewarm "yes" would be a setback to Mr. Gorbachev, who wanted a non-binding referendum to muster legitimacy for his efforts to keep the Soviet Union together. Instead of clear, identically worded referendum questions, a confusing array is presented. Six of the 15 republics -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Moldavia and Armenia -- are officially boycotting balloting altogether, wanting independence and nothing else.

Overall, renewed union is likely to win a plurality -- even though the future federation's exact shape is yet to be decided. That outcome would not put an end to separatist agitation. Indeed, it might only increase polarization between the central government in Moscow and the rebellious republics.

Win or lose, Mr. Gorbachev's headaches will not be over. His only consolation is that his chief rival, Boris N. Yeltsin, also has his share of worries.

Mr. Yeltsin has publicly demanded that Mr. Gorbachev resign, a cry that was later adopted by a series of mass meetings. Yet it is Mr. Yeltsin himself who on March 28 will face a hardliners' attempt to remove him from the presidency of the Russian republic. On Sunday, Mr. Yeltsin wants Russia's voters to mandate a law that would require a direct, popular election of the republic's president. That strategy would make it more difficult for his enemies to get rid of him.

The democratic, anti-Gorbachev forces Mr. Yeltsin heads are so badly fragmented their strength is difficult to gauge. But Sunday's election will also test the clout of the Communist Party, the military and the KGB. That conservative triumvirate has gained power and visibility in recent months. As the political center has eroded, Mr. Gorbachev's reliance on those law-and-order forces has grown.

In the past, they have been able to get out the vote. Now, however, the military is wracked by deep internal divisions between the privileged top brass and the draftees. The Communist Party, for its part, lost four million of its 19 million members last year and faces a 1.5-billion-ruble budget deficit. By comparison, the KGB appears to be in relatively good shape.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it will not settle anything. Neither the country's nor Mr. Gorbachev's troubles will end.

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