MOSCOW -- Russian political leaders yesterday tried gingerly to find a way around the explosive constitutional crisis that pits President Boris N. Yeltsin against the Congress of People's Deputies.
On the record, the Congress passed a law yesterday that would forbid the sort of referendum Mr. Yeltsin had in mind when he called on the Russian people Thursday to choose between him and the legislature.
Many of those voting for the law conceded that it may be unconstitutional, easily evaded or hopelessly imprecise. The constitution says that any referendum can be put on the ballot if its organizers can gather a million signatures.
One deputy from the city of Tula called the proposed ban "illogical." But he voted for it anyway because he feared the destructive forces that would be let loose by a national campaign between the prickly Mr. Yeltsin and his nationalist and former communist opponents.
Mr. Yeltsin's call for a referendum sent a shock wave through the Kremlin, as he appeared to be preparing at last for a showdown withopponents, brought on by disagreements over economic reform.
But by last night it was not certain what the prospects were for such a vote. The Congress had outlawed it, but that may not stick; Mr. Yeltsin had asked for it, but may not follow through.
Behind the scenes, the action was full of feints and parries.
Mr. Yeltsin refused to meet in the morning with Ruslan Khasbulatov, the speaker of the Congress, and then relented.
A compromise "in principle" was reached in the morning. But it was nearly torpedoed in the afternoon when the Congress passed the law banning certain types of referendums.
Mr. Yeltsin discussed several possible ways out of the crisis with a delegation from the Congress. Finally, in the evening, he picked up the conversation again with Mr. Khasbulatov and with Valery Zorkin, who as chairman of the Constitutional Court has been trying to mediate a solution and has threatened to impose one.
4 They said they would continue their talks today.
Among the ideas that have been proposed is a referendum on a new constitution for Russia. Mr. Yeltsin reportedly has suggested that the status quo be maintained until the next session of the Congress, in April. That would leave Yegor T. Gaidar, the economic reformer who failed Wednesday by 56 votes to win the approval of the Congress, as acting prime minister.
What to do about the prime minister's post "is a very difficult question for me," Mr. Yeltsin later told the news agency Itar-Tass. "I will think about it but I am not ready to propose another candidate to the Congress offhand."
Mr. Yeltsin, according to aides, also may be planning to resubmit Mr. Gaidar's name for confirmation.
Several thousand demonstrators -- both for and against Mr. Yeltsin -- gathered again last night behind St. Basil's Cathedral. But deputies say that outside Moscow all is calm, and they report that people in general fear the bitterness that would accompany a referendum campaign.
"The reaction coming from the regions is very different," said Andrei Fyodorov, who is close to Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi and therefore no friend of Mr. Yeltsin.
"Don't exaggerate what happens in Moscow," Mr. Fyodorov said. "What's important in Russia is what happens in the provinces."