Russian deputies OK referendum Congress sets stage for next battle, fixing ballot to give Yeltsin poor odds

March 30, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau The New York Times contributed to this article.

MOSCOW — *TC MOSCOW -- Russia's Congress, aggressive to the end, adjourned yesterday after stripping more power from President Boris N. Yeltsin and approving a referendum likely to worsen rather than settle the acrimonious struggle for control of Russia's future.

The Congress of People's Deputies that convened Friday to resolve a power struggle with Mr. Yeltsin -- and came close to throwing him out of office Sunday -- appeared to have settled little as it left town anticipating a campaign for an April 25 referendum. Battle lines were so hardened, the recriminations so bitter, that it seemed impossible Mr. Yeltsin and the Congress could ever speak to each other civilly again -- much less work together.

In a struggle characterized by both sides as one between reformers and the enemies of democracy, both sides declared victory yesterday.

"We defended the constitution," said Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, speaker of parliament, the architect of the assault against Mr. Yeltsin. "For the first time in the history of Russia, we managed to prevent anti-constitutional actions. . . . We see the presidential power crumbling before our very eyes."

On the opposite side, a Yeltsin supporter said the Congress had completely failed in what it set out to accomplish.

"They didn't make the president fall," said the Rev. Gleb Yakunin, a democratic member of the Congress. "They didn't succeed in avoiding a referendum. And there is a positive side -- they are going down in the polls."

Mr. Yeltsin had demanded an April 25 referendum to determine voters' support for himself and for changes in the constitution. The Congress gave him the date and the popularity question. But they added several other questions that would poll the popularity of painful economic reforms. And then they stipulated that no question could pass without approval of 50 percent of the total population in Russia old enough to vote.

The ballot they approved would ask the following questions:

* Do you trust President Boris N. Yeltsin?

* Do you approve the social and economic policies pursued by President Yeltsin since 1992?

* Do you believe it is necessary to hold early presidential elections?

* Do you consider it necessary to hold early elections of Russian deputies?

The Congress did not specify when early elections might be held if approved. As of now, elections for parliament are scheduled in 1995 and for president in 1996.

Mr. Yeltsin was opposed to the second question, which he said was designed to elicit a negative response.

As the economy has collapsed, life has gotten much worse for the average Russian in the past year. Mr. Yeltsin blames some of this on the central bank, which is under parliamentary control. Voters might be inclined to register anger at their diminished circumstances even though Mr. Yeltsin remains personally popular, and even though they may not blame him personally for their plight.

Instead of the economic question, Mr. Yeltsin wanted a vote on a draft constitution to clarify the powers of the executive and legislative branches of government. The new constitution he has in mind would create a bicameral legislature. It would effectively eliminate the Congress of Deputies as it now exists, costing the deputies their jobs and privileges.

The current constitution was written during the days of Soviet power. It has been repeatedly amended by the Congress, to such an extent that some Russians jokingly refer to it as "the constitution du jour."

But the most significant obstacle for Mr. Yeltsin is a clause that requires him to win the votes of a majority of all Russians over 18 to declare victory. The odds for such a victory are slight considering that in 1991, when he was elected Russia's first president, with 57 percent of the vote, his share represented about a quarter of the voting population.

Mr. Yeltsin did not attend yesterday's session. His spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, said he was visiting his mother's grave -- on the ninth day after her death -- in accordance with Russian Orthodox tradition.

'Machine of destruction'

But Mr. Kostikov was outspoken enough.

"The Congress has become a hellish machine of destruction of civic peace and political stability in Russia," he said. "The Congress has violated every thinkable and unthinkable rule of political decency and human morality."

Two of the president's allies, Sergei Filatov and Vladimir Lysenko, said Mr. Yeltsin might hold his own referendum and ignore the one approved by the Congress.

Another aide, Andrankik Migranian, predicted the confrontation would only grow worse.

"Deputies fear that after confirming his legitimacy, Boris Yeltsin will dissolve the Congress," Mr. Migranian said. "This is why conditions are being set which cannot be met. I doubt the president will agree to the rules of the referendum which the Congress is seeking to impose on him. I think we are in for the next tug-of-war between the executive and the legislative branches of power."

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