Hardline deputies accuse Yeltsin of wooing generals

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FURIOUS hardline deputies of the Russian parliament, apparently fearing that Boris Yeltsin might be preparing to sweep them aside, demanded yesterday to see the minutes of a meeting the President held earlier this week with military leaders.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of the Soviet-era assembly that has been obstructing Mr Yeltsin's reforms, went so far as to call for the sacking of the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, who has spoken out against Communist activists in the ranks of the army.

Little has emerged from the meeting Mr Yeltsin held on Wednesday with members of his Security Council as well as the military top brass, but Izvestia reported that the generals, who since the 1991 coup have pledged to keep out of politics, urged the President to be decisive in ending Russia's consitutional crisis. General Grachev strenuously denied rumours that a new coup was afoot and said the meeting had concentrated on military doctrine.

This did not satisfy the conservative deputy Sergei Baburin, who led the call for the minutes to be made available to parliament. An angry Mr Khasbulatov declared: 'The Minister of Defence should have been sacked long ago but we don't have the power to do it.' The day-to-day parliament is indeed powerless to fire him but its parent body, the Congres of People's Deputies, could do so if it gathers, as expected, next week.

Yesterday parliament failed to muster enough votes to set a date for a new session of Congress, but it will try again today when prospects for a quorum are better as Mr Yeltsin has been invited to address the assembly. 10 March is being spoken of as the likely date for the start of the Congress, which Mr Yeltsin hopes will endorse a constitutional accord, or failing that give him the go-ahead to hold a referendum, but which Mr Khasbulatov wants to use to ban any such poll.

Russia's complicated political mess, which is paralysing all attempts at economic reform, arises from the fact that although Mr Yeltsin was given a popular mandate in free elections in 1990, he is hampered by the old Soviet constitution which gave ultimate power to the 'soviets' or national and regional assemblies.

When parliament, which was elected under a partially democratic system, refused to let Mr Yeltsin have his choice of prime minister last December, he rashly announced that he would hold a referendum to ask the people whether he or the deputies were in charge.

Mr Yeltsin does not now really want the poll because he realises that the exhausted Russian people may not come out in force to vote and he has offered a truce in the power struggle instead, with the referendum only as a fall-back option if Mr Khasbulatov refuses to meet him half-way.

Unfortunately only parliament has the power to call a referendum, so the deputies are in a position to frustrate the President. He has said that if they do this he will call an unofficial opinion poll of his own or introduce the 'final option', widely taken to mean direct presidential rule which, at the risk of accusations that he is a dictator, would simply brush the Congress aside.

Faced with the turbulent deputies, Mr Yeltsin has hinted before that he might rule by decree and then not done anything. Some commentators are now comparing him to the hapless Mikhail Gorbachev a few months before he lost his grip of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the deputies were evidently worried yesterday that Mr Yeltsin had wooed the military over to his side.

Appalling conditions in the Russian Pacific Fleet have led to conscripts dying of malnutrition, the chief of an official investigation said yesterday. General Grachev announced earlier this week he was sacking senior commanders after reports that four young sailors had died of hunger and 86 been sent to hospital from the remote island base of Russky.