Battered Yeltsin retreats to his dacha

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin retreated from the Kremlin to his country dacha yesterday, battered by his conservative opponents and under pressure from supporters to reverse what they condemn as a 'constitutional coup'.

A four-day emergency session of the Congresss of People's Deputies, which ended on Saturday, has left Mr Yeltsin more vulnerable than at any time since the 1991 putsch and all but defenceless against further attacks on his authority.

He is expected to make his first public response to the crisis with a television address later today. Despite veiled threats to impose emergency presidential rule, however, there is little enthusiasm within the armed forces or security services for what Mr Yeltsin has called the 'final option'.

Hardliners gloated at Mr Yeltsin's discomfort, with leaders of the Russian Unity group vowing not to rest until he was stripped of the presidency. Mr Yeltsin's supporters, demoralised and fragmented, issued a limp appeal. 'The deputies of the democratic faction believe that a constitional coup has been carried out,' said Sergei Yushenkov of the the Radical Democrats group. 'We have urged the President to defend the constitution.'

There have been small protests for and against Mr Yeltsin in Moscow, Irkutsk and other cities. Miners at Siberia's Kuzbass pits have urged Mr Yeltsin to take 'decisive action' and an independent miners' union in the Arctic town of Vorkuta has also pledged its support.

His options, though, are few. Cabinet ministers loyal to his free-market policies insist they have no plans to resign but seem to have been left shell- shocked by the onslaught on Mr Yeltsin's authority. The Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, whose pro-Western stance has enraged hardline legislators, yesterday abruptly cancelled a scheduled live appearance on a US television show, NBC's 'Meet the Press'.

On the same show, the US Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, warned that victory for 'reactionaries' in the Russian Congress could prompt a review of American defence cuts.

The Congress, elected in 1990 in a poll rigged in the Communist Party's favour, voted overwhelmingly last Friday for a resolution reducing Mr Yeltsin's authority over cabinet appointments and power to issue decress. On Saturday it rejected a final plea from Mr Yeltsin for a referendum to decide the issue at the heart of the crisis: whether the President or parliament should have ultimate authority. Instead, it decided to use money set aside for the holding of the referendum to build military housing.

Mr Yeltsin has vowed to press ahead with a referendum on his own but it seems unlikely that he can organise such a poll in face of hostility from many local leaders. And even if he does, the result will amount to little more than a big opinion poll with no legal force. The biggest obstacle of all, though, will be public apathy. A Russian television poll yesterday showed that only 34 per cent of those questioned would vote in any referendum. The remainder said they either don't care or have not decided whether to back the President or parliament.

In Paris, a spokesman for Francois Mitterrand said yesterday the French President would visit Moscow this week to show support for Mr Yeltsin.

'A stable and peaceful Russia is in everyone's interest, particularly Europe's. We must contribute to this,' the presidential palace spokesman, Jean Musitelli, said.

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