Besieged Yeltsin warns of 'final option': As Russia sinks further into an economic morass, the battle intensifies between the two protagonists who seek to determine future policy

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin yesterday threatened opponents with a 'final option' of emergency measures to rescue economic reform and prevent Russia's conservative parliament from imposing further curbs on his rapidly dwindling authority.

The warning echoes similar threats made before the last session of the Congress of People's Deputies in December. Since then, however, Russia's political paralysis has deepened sharply and Mr Yeltsin faces strong pressure from allies for drastic action to end a deadlock over power-sharing.

With his own authority and prestige slipping away as Russia's economic and political crisis worsens, Mr Yeltsin said yesterday that the country faced 'one of the most difficult periods in its post-war history' and hinted that he could impose emergency rule to salvage free-market reforms and his own position.

As he spoke, the rouble - a sensitive index of Russia's woes - plunged yet again on the Moscow currency exchange, tumbling to 649 against the dollar from 593. The currency, which last August was 162 against the dollar, has been ravaged by fear that Russia could slip into hyperinflation after prices rose by some 2,200 per cent last year.

Economic collapse has led for calls, most recently by Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi over the weekend, that President Yeltsin abandon, not merely tinker with, radical free-market policies. Mr Yeltsin, though, insisted yesterday that he would not give in to what he called 'conservative forces seeking a full-scale retreat from reform'.

He said he would press ahead with plans for a constitutional referendum on 11 April that has been widely criticised and which he himself said last month he might drop. If Congress, the full legislature elected under Communism and due to meet next week for a one-day extraordinary session, refuses to endorse a referendum or agree to stop chipping away at his authority, he said he would organise his own plebiscite to decide who rules Russia.

More ominously, President Yeltsin also dangled the threat of what would amount to a presidential putsch. 'There is a final option which I don't want to talk about,' he told liberal supporters in the Democratic Choice alliance. 'I don't think things will go that far and I hope they don't. We should respect the constitution, but if conservatives use extreme measures to destory Russia, then to save Russia, to save democracy and reform, we must seek other paths.'

Any such move, though, would need the support of the military. During a cabinet meeting last October, two of Mr Yeltsin's aides put forward a plan to suspend parliament and impose presidential rule but were overruled by the heads of the security, defence and interior ministries. The military also showed little enthusiasm when Mr Yeltsin stormed out of the December Congress saying he could no longer work with parliament. He later backed down and sat down for talks with his principal adversary, the chairman of Russia's parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov. The feud with Mr Khasbulatov has since erupted again with new intensity and personal venom.

Mr Yeltsin, though, has little room for manoeuvre. The army's distaste for any plan to scrap parliament has, if anything, only increased. The Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, warned yesterday that the military 'should not and will not deviate from the centre. I have always said that the army will fulfil only laws and the constitution.' The remarks were cast as a warning against hardline extremists calling for open rebellion in the ranks but also carry a clear warning to Mr Yeltsin not to drag the military into his political battles.

Parliament shows no sign of being cowed. Conservatives in the standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, yesterday launched bitter attacks on what Mr Yeltsin has hailed as the cornerstone of Russia's post-Cold War foreign policy - the Start 2 nuclear arms treaty with the United States. The treaty was branded 'another humiliation for Russia' by Major General Boris Tarasov at the start of ratification proceedings.

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