Kremlin team discovers referendum was rigged

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Russia's new constitution, described by President Boris Yeltsin as the 'most important condition for stability in Russia', risks unravelling following an authoritative report of massive fraud in a referendum that approved the post- Soviet charter.

There have been allegations of rigged results from the moment polls closed on 12 December but the new attack comes from a Kremlin- appointed commission set up by President Yeltsin himself, Izvestia newspaper reported.

'These figures are political dynamite,' the respected daily said. A serious challenge to the legitimacy of the constitution would badly tarnish Mr Yeltsin and raise grave questions about the division of power - the very issue that paralysed the country throughout last year and brought tanks on to the streets of Moscow to shell parliament in October.

Some 9.2 million votes - out of an electorate of between 105 and 107 million - are now said to have been falsified so as to bloat the turnout figure and push it over the 50 per cent needed to validate the constitutional referendum. The real turnout, Izvestia said, citing the commission, was only 46.1 per cent.

This taints the cornerstone of Russia's new political system with illegitimacy. It also throws into doubt a non-binding political peace pact signed with great pomp by Mr Yeltsin and most of his opponents in the Kremlin last week. The most important foes, the Communists, the Agrarian Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, have little interest in looking too closely at charges of fraud as they are said to have benefited from it themselves in parliamentary elections held alongside the constitutional referendum.

Mr Zhirinovsky, the ultra- nationalist known for throwing flowerpots and punches, will be particularly reluctant to challenge the election results as his party triumphed and he favours sweeping powers granted the president by the new constitution.

According to Izvestia, the Kremlin-appointed team was lead by Alexander Sobyanin, an outspoken reformer. A spokesman for Mr Yeltsin, Vladimir Mezhenkov, was quoted last night as accusing Mr Sobyanin of seeking 'major bloodshed'.

The Kremlin has refused to entertain the idea of the constitution not passing. During the campaign, Mr Yeltsin banned criticism of the document. On election night, many hours before even preliminary results were available, Mr Yeltsin's chief spokesman, Vyachslav Kostikov, announced the constitution adopted.

Mr Sobyanin's team drew its conclusions after extrapolating from detailed samplings of various regional results. It said there were three types of fraud: stuffed ballot boxes, official pressure and falsified voter lists. It did not implicate the Kremlin or senior officials.