Early summer entices Russians to poll: In encouraging news for Boris Yeltsin, voters make their voice heard after expressing cynicism and apathy in run-up to referendum

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POLITICS seemed the last thing on anyone's mind: the first person through the door had a plane to catch, the second a fishing rendezvous at the family dacha (he left his car runnning outside) and the third an early shift at the local telephone office.

The main topic of conversation was the weather: whatever happened to spring? A week ago it was snowing in Moscow; yesterday, even at 7am, the heat of summer was suffocating.

Politics, all agreed, was humbug, a subject that inspires distaste, not passion. So what were they all doing at the Innovators' House of Culture shortly after dawn yesterday?

They came to vote - and to prove, once again, that in Russia, deeds are often more important than words. Everyone is fed up. Everyone grumbles about price rises, which have cut real incomes in half over the past year, but many still want to be heard.

Only a few weeks ago, a poll in Izvestia newspaper suggested that only one third of Moscow voters would take part in a referendum to end the feud between Boris Yeltsin and the Congress of People's Deputies. But by 6pm yesterday, nearly 75 per cent of voters had cast their ballots at polling stations Five and Six in the Innovators' House of Culture, a venue normally reserved for meetings of local cat breeders. Yevgenny Timofeicha, a pensioner, summed up the mood: 'They have all acted like clowns, but some are dangerous clowns. They must be stopped.' She voted for Mr Yeltsin.

The turn-out was a bit lower elsewhere but well over half of all Russia's 105 million registered voters cast their ballots. Over 60 per cent voted in Kaliningrad, 62.4 per cent in St Petersburg, 72 per cent in the Siberian region of Yakutia. There were a few exceptions. Voting was slow in Tatarstan which wants independence from Moscow. In Chechnya, the home region of parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, there was no voting at all: it has claimed independence since 1991.

In much of Russia there were few signs of the crippling apathy many Russians insist they feel, though some of the apparent enthusiasm was more a matter of habit: voting under Communism was mandatory. Early results reported from the Far East by Radio Russia suggested that Mr Yeltsin could receive the mandate he needs to implement plans for a radical reworking of the political system.

A draft of the constitution Mr Yeltsin hopes to introduce was released on the eve of the poll. It would greatly strengthen the presidency and replace the Congress of People's Deputies with a two-chamber parliament much diminished in power.

According to Radio Russia, 60 per cent of those who voted said 'yes' to the first question on the ballot - do you trust President Yeltsin? - while about half said 'yes' to the second question - do you support his economic reforms? Perhaps more important was a staggering 81 per cent said to have voted in favour of early parliamentary elections.

This reflects what for many Russians was the dominant - possibly only - issue at stake: who should have power, the Congress, or the president? In few places was there any sign of the passions that accompanied Mr Yeltsin's presidential campaign in 1991, when 70 per cent of the electorate voted and Mr Yeltsin won a 57 per cent majority. The results of yesterday' referendum are unlikely to be so decisive.

Out of 45 voters who visited the Cultural Palace during the first hour of voting, all but a handful said they were worse off than when Mr Yeltsin became president. But all but two said they had voted for Mr Yeltsin and his policies. Even those who voted against him said they wanted early elections for parliament, whose members narrowly failed to impeach Mr Yeltsin in March.

Whatever the final results, though, Russia's struggle for power is far from over. It will most likely return to the arena yesterday's referendum was meant to by-pass: the Congress of People's Deputies. Voting had barely begun yesterday when Mr Khasbulatov made it clear parliament would fight to the end. Mr Yeltsin's plans of installing a presidential republic with a new constitution was, he said, no more than a 'childish game'.

'Even if 100 per cent of the voters vote for the President, he still has no right to make unilateral changes,' declared Mr Khasbulatov, who only a day earlier had said he was ready to resign if Mr Yeltsin got 50 per cent of the vote. Voters at the Innovators' Cultural Palace and elsewhere may be wondering why they bothered.

(Photograph omitted)

Ivor Crewe, page 18