Clinton backs Yeltsin's new powers

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Clinton last night backed Boris Yeltsin's use of special powers until a referendum on who rules Russia.

Mr Clinton still plans to have a summit meeting with Mr Yeltsin in Vancouver on 3 and 4 April. George Stephanopoulos, the White House spokesman, said: 'There is a political impasse which Mr Yeltsin is trying to resolve.' The US agreed that the best way to do this was through a new popular mandate.

President Clinton said he was pleased that the Russian leader had promised to maintain civil liberties. 'What matters is that Russia remain a democracy and a free market economy,' Mr Stephanopoulos said.

The US was told earlier yesterday what Mr Yeltsin planned to do. Mr Stephanopoulos denied, however, that there had been any discussions between the Russians and the Americans about Mr Yeltsin's intended actions. He said the US was simply informed through the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev.

Over the last week, as the political situation deteriorated in Russia, the US has tried to support President Yeltsin but at the same time emphasise this support is not personal but for democracy and free-market reforms. Last week a senior member of the administration said the US would not object to Mr Yeltsin dissolving 'an anti-democratic parliament' but opposed him using troops and tanks which would lead to blood in the streets.

Britain also reaffirmed its support for the reform process in Russia, following Mr Yeltsin's dramatic address. 'We have been following developments closely in Russia over the last few days,' the Foreign Office said in a statement.

It said the Prime Minister, John Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, had been keeping closely in touch with Mr Yeltsin and the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev. 'We have heard President Yeltsin's statement this evening and we welcome the Russian government's continued commitment to democracy and civil rights.'

Mr Yeltsin's dramatic television address, in which he announced he was taking special powers to win his battle with the conservative-dominated Congress of People's Deputies, was pre-recorded but kept secret from even his closest advisers.

His move follows a full-scale onslaught on his authority and free-market policies last week during an emergency four-day session of the Congress.

'In Russia we have in effect two governments . . . This is the road to chaos and Russia's death,' Mr Yeltsin said last night as he sat behind a desk with a Russian flag to his right. While not naming names, he lashed out at his arch-rival, Ruslan Khasbulatov, accusing parliamentary leaders of using last week's Congress session to 'start the engine of an anti-constitutional coup'.

The Congress is due to meet again in June and has vowed to press home its attack on the executive. To avoid this, Mr Yeltsin said the Congress would cease to exist under a new constitution he plans to introduce if he wins a referendum he has called for 25 April. He remains far more popular than any of his parliamentary rivals, but will have trouble overcoming the dominant political mood among the general public: deep apathy. An opinion poll last week showed 62 per cent of the population probably would not vote in any referendum. Mr Yeltsin said the country's smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, would 'continue to work', but his decree strips it of any power to defy any of the steps announced last night.

His challenge to Congress ran into immediate opposition, led by his own Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, who warned that the decision to introduce presidential rule would 'lead to total destabilisation in the country'.

Addressing an emergency session of the parliament's presidium Mr Rutskoi, a former air force general, said he had twice warned Mr Yeltsin against introducing direct rule and had sent him a letter to this effect. 'In this letter, I wrote that force would inevitably lead to a bloodbath,' Mr Rutskoi said, adding that Mr Yeltsin was surrounded by 'irresponsible associates'. The President's advisers 'will be the first to take to the lifeboats when the situation becomes more difficult', he said.

Mr Rutskoi called on the parliament leadership, which has decided to summon an emergency meeting of the parliament today, to abstain from what he called 'badly thought out' actions.

Mr Yeltsin has been Russian President since June 1991, when he won Russia's first presidential election with 57 per cent of the vote. He took office in July. Hardliners attempted an abortive coup to oust the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, in August 1991, but Mr Yeltsin mustered the opposition to defeat the coup plotters, suspended the Communist Party and emerged as the country's most powerful and popular politician.

In October 1991 he outlined his radical economic reform plan, including market-set prices, private ownership and a convertible rouble. He named Yegor Gaidar and other reformers to his new Cabinet in November. With the presidents of Belarus and Ukraine, he declared the Soviet Union extinct and formed the Commonwealth of Independent States in December 1991. Mr Gorbachev resigned.

In January 1992 he lifted price controls on most goods, with the result that prices jumped 350 per cent within weeks. The state bank tightened the money supply, precipitating a cash shortage.

The economy continued to worsen, and in April the Communist-dominated Congress of People's Deputies pushed for a softening of reforms. In May Mr Yeltsin pledged not to seek a second term as president in 1996 and began to reorganise his Cabinet under pressure from Congress.

By December he was forced to replace Mr Gaidar with Viktor Chernomyrdin, a veteran technocrat. The battles with the Congress Speaker, Mr Khasbulatov, over the balance of power between president and legislature began in earnest. A referendum on the issue was set for April, but was cancelled by Congress as it challenged Mr Yeltsin's power.

(Photograph omitted)

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