MOSCOW -- Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin backed away yesterday from an electoral test of strength with conservative lawmakers by dropping his insistence on an April referendum that he had hoped would bolster his executive powers.
Instead, he called for "a year of moratorium on all political fist fighting" to let Russia stabilize its plummeting economy. That should be followed by elections of lawmakers in 1994 and a new president in 1995 -- each a year ahead of schedule, he said.
The president's retreat from the constitutional referendum, his highest political priority this year, appeared to dim his hopes for moving Russia beyond its obsolete Soviet-era institutions and the former Communists who control them.
Mr. Yeltsin acted after a wide range of public figures warned that a defeat or a low turnout in the April 11 vote might backfire. They said either outcome would weaken all central authority over the vast, multi-ethnic Russian Federation.
Facing strong opposition by legislative leaders to the referendum, Mr. Yeltsin tried to outmaneuver them by seeking support yesterday from presidents of the federation's 16 republics. But he failed.
Vyacheslav Kostikov, Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, said the republic leaders "feared that the referendum will polarize Russia and divert the people from economic tasks" and called for its postponement.
Hours later, Mr. Yeltsin turned up at a meeting of the Supreme Soviet's Constitutional Commission with an olive branch.
Complaining that lawmakers' efforts to kill the referendum or distort its purpose were tearing "the thin fabric of stability in this country," he agreed to an alternative.
The president accepted an offer from Valery D. Zorkin, chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court, to meet with him and Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, the speaker of Parliament, to work out a fundamental division of their powers.
"The referendum is not a goal in itself," a somber-looking Mr. Yeltsin said. "If an effective and reliable solution for the problems is found, it would be unreasonable to turn it down."
Once allies, Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Khasbulatov have feuded over who rules Russia since it gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in late 1991. Russia inherited a 1978 Soviet constitution that fails to delineate their authority.
The Supreme Soviet, the legislature, and the larger Congress of People's Deputies, the Parliament, elected in 1990 under Soviet rule, have repeatedly undermined Mr. Yeltsin's moves toward market reforms.
The hard-liners, who oppose Mr. Yeltsin's market reforms and his pro-Western foreign policy, forced out his reformist prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, in December.
A frustrated Mr. Yeltsin then called for a referendum, saying voters should force either the president or lawmakers to resign and face re-election.
Mr. Zorkin, the country's top judicial authority, emerged as a mediator and got both men to agree that the referendum should be about basic principles for a new constitution.
That accord has slowly unraveled in recent weeks in a dispute over what questions should be put to voters.
Although opinion polls indicate slightly more public support for Mr. Yeltsin, most have found widespread disgust with the political tug-of-war and apathy about the referendum.