Angry Yeltsin seeks showdown in referendum

December 11, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- An angry and disdainful Boris N. Yeltsin, raisin the specter of a "creeping coup" against him, said yesterday that he could no longer work with Russia's Communist-dominated Congress and called for a referendum to let the Russian people choose between him and the legislature.

Stung by rejection and defeat over the last several days at the hands of his conservative foes in the Congress, the Russian president strode into its Kremlin hall at 10 a.m. yesterday and promptly brought on Russia's most serious political crisis since the failed coup of August 1991.

"The reforms are in grave danger," he said. "What some people failed to do last August they decided to do now -- by a creeping coup. We are being led to a dangerous line, beyond which destabilization and economic chaos will lead to a civil war."

If not thwarted, he said, his opponents will seek in the long run "the restoration of the totalitarian Soviet-Communist system, which was damned by the people and denounced by the world community.

"This is not even a way backwards. This is a way to nowhere," he said. "The responsible and crucial moment has come. There is one judge of the Congress and the president, the people. Therefore, I see only one way out of this deepest of crises, in a nationwide referendum."

Members of the Congress were caught by surprise. As Mr. Yeltsin's words sunk in, there were shouts of anger. Later, many deputies called on the president to resign. Others said they would relish a fight before the people.

"You want a referendum, Mr. Yeltsin? Then let's go," said Sergei Baburin, one of his sharpest critics.

"This situation could end with an explosion . . . if hypocrisy and divisiveness are to be the president's main principles," he said.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, the parliamentary speaker, called last night for new elections for both the presidency and the parliament. "We are prepared to make any sacrifice to ensure that peace sets in among our citizens," he said.

Yesterday, several thousand demonstrators gathered near the Kremlin. On one side of a police line were Mr. Yeltsin's supporters, including a sizable contingent of Cossacks dressed in traditional military uniforms and waving the Russian flag. On the other was a group of Communists and nationalists, incongruously waving the red hammer-and-sickle flag alongside old czarist emblems.

A convoy of trucks circled the Kremlin, honking their horns in support of the president. Angry opponents shouted the old Bolshevik slogan "All power to the soviets!" Police were everywhere. Trucks carrying soldiers shuttled around.

dTC Several deputies seemed rattled by the events outside. "He is destroying the country. He is creating conditions for civil war," Viktor Andropov said of Mr. Yeltsin. "Why?"

In the afternoon, a defiantly confident-looking Mr. Yeltsin visited a car factory in southeastern Moscow, where he set about drumming up support for his referendum among the friendly but low-key workers.

Mr. Yeltsin proposed that the referendum be held Jan. 24. Whichever side loses -- the president or the legislature -- should resign and submit to a new election, he said.

By afternoon a few key figures were working desperately, behind the scenes and in public, for a compromise. Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court, said Mr. Yeltsin should meet with him and with Mr. Khasbulatov to work out a solution. A meeting has been scheduled for today.

If a compromise cannot be reached, Mr. Zorkin said, it will show that the leaders are concerned only with their own ambitions and not with the interests of the people.

In that case, he said, the court itself would impose a solution. Otherwise, Mr. Zorkin said, Russia faces the "danger of disintegration."

At the same time, seven deputies from a variety of factions met with Sergei Shakhrai, Mr. Yeltsin's political adviser. They spent the afternoon and evening working on a joint statement to be ready for Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Khasbulatov's meeting today.

Even some of Mr. Yeltsin's own aides were unenthusiastic about his appeal to the people.

Mr. Yeltsin has never gotten along well with the Congress, whose 1,040 deputies were elected to five-year terms in 1990 in elections that were stacked to favor the Communists.

But until the session that began Dec. 1, he had been able to keep it from interfering much with the running of the government. In fact, he was granted special emergency powers that allowed him to rule by decree until Dec. 1.

His opponents, finally consolidating their strength within the Congress, rebuffed his request for the continuation of his extra power and Wednesday rejected his nomination of Yegor Gaidar, a free-market reformer, as prime minister.

One deputy, Yevgeny Kim, said yesterday that this session of the Congress was "the revenge of the nomenklatura," or party elite.

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