Russia faces watershed in today's referendum Results will carry global implications F

April 25, 1993|By Will Englund and Kathy Lally | Will Englund and Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Millions of Russians will turn out today for an election whose importance may be determined more by the reaction to the result than the result itself.

Whatever answers the Russian voters give to the question of President Boris N. Yeltsin's popularity and what sort of a political structure they favor, the election will shift the ground under the feet of the contestants -- Mr. Yeltsin and his opponents in the Russian legislature -- and the ramifications could be deep and long-lasting.

The referendum's results could lift Mr. Yeltsin to new heights of power and authority, or they could fatally compromise his standing.

They could clear the way for an eventual resolution of Russia's persistent political confrontation, or they could set the stage for new tensions and even violence.

They could help bring this enormous country together, or help drive it apart.

But that will be determined long after the tally trickles in from 96,776 polling places in a country that stretches across 11 time zones.

As big as Russia is, the implications of the referendum will stretch far beyond its borders.

If Mr. Yeltsin's hard-line opponents emerge with the upper hand, the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- START II -- on nuclear arsenals will probably never be ratified. A resurgent Russian nationalism could stymie efforts to impose a peace on Yugoslavia, and it could eventually mean untold and potentially bloody clashes with Russia's immediate neighbors.

The outcome also could have a significant impact on the relationship between Russia and the West, particularly the United States, which has staked so much of its policy on Mr. Yeltsin's survival.

The Clinton administration considers Mr. Yeltsin far and away the politician best able to keep Russia on the reform path and has marshaled billions of dollars in aid pledges from industrial democracies and international financial institutions to bolster his chances in today's referendum.

Asked Friday what the United States would do if Russian voters backed Mr. Yeltsin but not his reforms, President Clinton said, "If the Russian people ratify him as their president and stick with him, then the United States will continue to work with him.

In Russia, a blunder by either side following the referendum, or willful intransigence, could take Russia down the road to civil war, with dreadful consequences for both Europe and Asia.

"The referendum will produce nothing but a further split of society and further aggravation of the problems," said a pessimistic Gennady V. Osipov, director of the Institute of Socio-Political Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "I think the situation will be more tense after it's over."

Voters will be asked to answer four questions:

Do you support President Yeltsin? Do you support his economic reform

program? Should there be early elections for the presidency? Should there be early elections for the Congress of People's Deputies?

The first two questions are nonbinding. They are, in essence, a government-sponsored opinion poll.

But they will carry moral weight, and the Constitutional Court ruled last week that on those questions Mr. Yeltsin needs only a majority of those voting, not a majority of all registered voters as the legislature had demanded.

This immediately made him a likely winner -- especially on the first question -- rather than a likely loser, according to a variety of polls.

Interviews in several cities suggest that voters who have chosen to support the president fall into three categories. Some actively endorse Mr. Yeltsin and his policies, others are motivated by a strong dislike for his opponents, and still others have fallen back on a practical argument -- that it is better to let him finish his term than subject Russia to yet more upheaval.

The last two questions, involving early elections, will require a majority of all registered voters -- whether they vote or not -- in order to be decisive, the court ruled. This means that both stand a good chance of being defeated, although voter resentment against the Congress is running so high -- one poll found only 15 percent support among the electorate -- that no prediction is certain.

Estimates suggest that anywhere from 55 percent to 75 percent of Russia's 105,539,421 registered voters will turn out.

Yeltsin foes gear up

If Mr. Yeltsin loses the first question, he has said he will resign. Most analysts now say that won't occur, but the question is, what will happen if he wins?

Already, his opponents are trying to belittle a Yeltsin victory.

Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who has turned against the president and who charged last week that the government was rife with corruption, has declared that if Mr. Yeltsin falls short of an absolute majority of registered voters, it will be a moral defeat even if it is a technical victory.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of the Congress and Mr. Yeltsin's main nemesis, sounded the same theme Friday.

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