Congress votes to bar Yeltsin referendum

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THE Congress of People's Deputies weakened the position of President Boris Yeltsin still further yesterday by supporting a resolution that would cancel a referendum to decide on the division of political power in Russia.

The MPs will continue debating the resolution today but it seems Mr Yeltsin, who made an impassioned appeal for co-operation for the sake of Russia, has little hope of avoiding a humiliation.

Before the Congress opened on Wednesday, Mr Yeltsin had made two proposals for ending his power struggle with the Soviet-era assembly but both were rejected out of hand. Instead, the deputies proposed scrapping an accord Mr Yeltsin reached at the last Congress in December, whereby they would not try to erode his powers any further until a referendum could be held to sort out constitutional contradictions.

Mr Yeltsin hinted on the eve of the Congress that he was ready to set aside the constitution, suspend the legislature and introduce presidential rule if thwarted by Congress. It was notable that when he entered the Congress yesterday he made his way through the crowd to greet Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister; Viktor Barannikov, the Security Minister; and Viktor Yerin, the Interior Minister - whose support would be critical if he declared presidential rule.

When he came to the podium, he declared: 'This draft resolution evokes in me a deep concern for the destiny of Russia because it dismantles even the minimum of accord which existed so far.'

Mr Yeltsin said he was not advocating a strong presidency because he held that post. 'Believe me, the presidential position is not the easiest one. I say this because I know that if you disrupt the presidency, you would wreck Russia.' He reiterated that he was ready for 'honest and equal co-operation' but said it was only possible if there was 'mutual desire' for it.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Congress chairman, immediately made it clear that there was no such mutual desire. He described the December deal as 'the work of the devil'. Yesterday's resolution, approved in principle by 672 to 116 votes, cancelled that truce and also the referendum, set for 11 April, which Mr Yeltsin had wanted to clarify the division of executive and legislative powers. If Mr Yeltsin were to attempt a poll against the wishes of Congress, he could face impeachment.

Mr Yeltsin was freely elected in 1991 but the old Soviet constitution, still in force, gives ultimate power to Congress.

True, the resolution did make two small concessions to Mr Yeltsin and his government - that the head of the Central Bank should join the cabinet and that parliament, acting day-to-day for Congress, should 'take into account' ministers' advice on state spending. But that was hardly enough to give the government power to control inflation, especially since the bank head would remain answerable to parliament.

Mr Yeltsin was looking gloomy when Mikhail Chelnokov, a hardline MP, got up and called for his sacking. Although the proposal was not put to the vote the President stalked out of the chamber in obvious disgust.

When the debate ends, the President will almost certainly receive a slap in the face from Congress. But the man who leapt on a tank to defeat the hardline coup attempt in 1991 has a combative spirit. If he feels the Russian people are with him he may take the risk and declare direct presidential rule. The only question is: will the army be with him?

In the West there is growing concern about Mr Yeltsin's position. Yesterday President Bill Clinton, while giving his almost daily endorsement of the Russian leader, said he could not predict if Mr Yeltsin would survive the power struggle.

Constitutional swamp, page 14