Russia in crisis: US backs Yeltsin

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THE UNITED States is prepared to back Boris Yeltsin if he uses emergency powers to win his bitter power struggle with hardline opponents in the Russian Congress, a White House source said yesterday.

As Russia slipped further into political anarchy with more attacks on Mr Yeltsin by the Congress of People's Deputies, a senior US government official told the New York Times: 'If Yeltsin suspends an anti-democratic Parliament, it is not necessarily an anti-democratic act.' The official was careful to distance the US from any support for the use of armed force by Mr Yeltsin to stay in power.

President Bill Clinton urged the Group of Seven leading industrial nations to take aggressive action to help Mr Yeltsin. Senior G7 officials, the 'sherpas' who are the personal representatives of the heads of state, are meeting in Hong Kong this weekend to discuss Russia. 'As far as I am concerned (Mr Yeltsin) is still the only person who has been elected president of the country, and I believe he genuinely believes in economic reforms and political democracy and I think we should support that,' Mr Clinton said. 'If the G7 countries in a position to support those moves would show a more co-ordinated and aggressive approach to the problems, it might be possible to build a consensus in Russia for how they would work with all of us.'

Mr Yeltsin's team has been taking soundings about the West's attitude to possible courses of action open to the Russian President as Mr Yeltsin has suffered a series of defeats which have stripped him of most of his powers. There are fears that Russia could slip into civil war as Mr Yeltsin and the Congress battle to decide who rules it.

The latest round of the power struggle ended yesterday with the chairman of Congress, Ruslan Khasbulatov, slamming the doors of compromise in Mr Yeltsin's face. The Congress has scrapped a deal dating back to December which protected Mr Yeltsin from any further erosion of his powers until a constitutional referendum could be held.

The referendum, originally set for 11 April, has been cancelled. But Mr Yeltsin yesterday formally presented a proposal that one be held on 25 April. His representative, Vladimir Shumeiko, had hardly got out the words 'I ask you to pass this simple decision and give him (Mr Yeltsin) a chance to appeal to the people' before the irate deputies forced him to retreat in a hail of boos.

The Congress, elected in 1990 under the rules of the old Communist Party, proceeded to throw out the referendum proposal by 643 votes to 143. It then issued an appeal to the Russian people in which it accused Mr Yeltsin of 'political adventurism' and defiantly closed the session.

There was no immediate word from Mr Yeltsin, though he said on Friday that there was no more point in talking to the obstructive Congress and that he would go ahead with the referendum whether the deputies approved or not. But it is not clear how he would carry it out.

Mr Yeltsin's advisers have talked about declaring direct rule and suspending the constitution but he seems to be held back partly by distaste for the use of force, which he so stoutly resisted during the attempted coup in 1991. Nor can he be sure of military support.

The Congress had set aside 20 billion roubles ( pounds 20m) for the poll but yesterday the deputies voted to use the money instead to build housing for the military.

Mr Yeltsin and Mr Clinton are to hold their first summit in Vancouver, Canada, on 3-4 April. The White House said yesterday that the summit was still on.

The Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Fyodorov, flew into Hong Kong last night to join G7 officials. Mr Fyodorov was due to meet the sherpas to report to them directly on Russia's plight. It is the first time a representative of a non-G7 country has attended a sherpa meeting.