MOSOCOW — MOSCOW -- As the extent of his victory at the polls became evident yesterday, President Boris N. Yeltsin played his cards close to the vest while his opponents busily went about declaring that it hadn't been a victory at all.
In doing so, they made it clear that great political battles lie ahead.
Ruslan Khasbulatov, leader of the Russian Congress, said that in capturing 59.2 percent of the vote (according to nearly complete tallies) Mr. Yeltsin had merely brought the divisions of society closer to the surface.
"Nobody should have any illusions," Mr. Khasbulatov said. "There were no winners or losers."
The referendum, he said, has brought about a further weakening of the state, "and only those pursuing this aim can be content."
Alexander Rutskoi, the vice president and one of Mr. Yeltsin's most bitter foes, noted that the number of voters opposed to the president, added to those who did not vote at all, totaled almost 70 million people, which he described as a striking lack of support for Mr. Yeltsin.
A committee of opposition legislators hailed the referendum for creating a "healthy new situation brought about by the political and moral defeat of the Russian president."
That political and moral defeat, though, resulted in Mr. Yeltsin's winning slightly more support from the electorate than he had when he was elected president in 1991.
He also won an endorsement of his economic reform program -- with 53.6 percent of the vote in the 79 regions that have reported out of 88 regions altogether -- on a question that had been designed by his foes specifically to embarrass him and his Cabinet.
One of those foes, Vladimir Isakov, took a somewhat more clear-eyed view of the results than his colleagues. The results were a clear and devastating victory for Mr. Yeltsin, he said -- if "inexplicable."
Mr. Isakov went on to warn Mr. Yeltsin against taking any "unconstitutional actions," and here he hit upon the question that is uppermost in Russian politics today: What does the president intend?
Mr. Yeltsin's aides said he was analyzing the results, and planning what to do next.
The voters gave him solid backing, but the referendum questions on whether they supported him and his program dictated no results or consequences. He can take his victory and make of it what he will.
Two other questions asked voters if they wanted early elections for the Congress and the presidency, and both fell short of the absolute majority of all registered voters that they needed to carry.
Mr. Yeltsin's allies insisted yesterday that he move quickly to capitalize on his showing.
Sergei Yushenkov, a leader of the reform faction within the legislature, said the president should push for a new constitution that would do away with the Congress, and step up the pressure for further economic reform.
The point, though, is that Mr. Yeltsin will have to do battle with Mr. Khasbulatov and his other opponents if he is to bring about such changes. He must either defy them -- what Mr. Isakov meant when he referred to "unconstitutional actions" -- or persuade them that they have no choice but to go along.
The fight will probably come not in the small, working parliament, called the Supreme Soviet, but in the larger parent body, the Congress of People's Deputies. The Congress is a 1,000-member body that is dominated by veterans of the old Communist Party hierarchy, has the power to rearrange the government, and write and rewrite the constitution.
It normally meets every six months, although it met twice in March alone. Now, most analysts expect that it will be called into session again soon to deal with the results of the referendum.
Mr. Yeltsin did not fare well in the Congress the last time it gathered, or the time before that, but even the most hidebound party hack can read the election returns. The referendum may have given Mr. Yeltsin new leverage to use against his disparate opponents.
The opposition to Mr. Yeltsin has consisted of the hard-line true believers, some Communists and some fervent Christian monarchists, allied with a large group of middling deputies who do not appear to have much of a philosophy and are referred to as "the swamp" -- all led by Mr. Khasbulatov, an adept if personally unpopular tactician.
Mr. Yeltsin's job will be to pry that coalition apart.
He will undoubtedly invoke the will of the people. Results coming in yesterday showed that he had won easily in Sakhalin, an island near Japan; in Kamchatka, a volcanic peninsula jutting into the Pacific; in Novosibirsk, in the heart of Siberia; in Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea; in Novgorod, where the Russian state was founded; and in Karelia, on the Finnish border.
In a statement issued yesterday, he said, "The attempt of the Supreme Soviet leadership to disrupt this nationwide manifestation of the citizens' will under the pretext that the population is tired of politics has failed. The attempt to discredit the people's will has failed as well."
Mr. Isakov predicted that little good would come of the coming struggle.
The referendum was "an extremely dangerous political game," he said. "This political campaign failed to move the country the slightest bit toward civil peace."
Sergei Baburin, another opposition leader, compared Mr. Yeltsin's victory to the taking of Moscow by Napoleon in 1812. That was a transient triumph for the French emperor, one that led to his own downfall in the end because it sparked the "awakening and liberation of Russia," in Mr. Baburin's words.
But a presidential spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, said, "The Supreme Soviet leadership feels the ground slipping away from under its feet."