Moscow power struggle remains unresolved: Congress ends its emergency session, but the rift with President Yeltsin is wider than ever

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AT 6.30 yesterday evening, moments after the Congress of People's Deputies ended its emergency session with one final assault on President Boris Yeltsin, a svelte young woman appeared on television to offer an apology to the nation: 'Unfortunately, because of the Congress, many programmes have been cancelled. . . . We excuse ourselves and we will try to show them all soon.'

For four days, aside for a pause yesterday afternoon for a documentary about skunks, Russian television - like the nation - has been captive to the sound and fury emanating from the Great Kremlin Palace. Now it is over. Ordinary programming can resume. The vicious power struggle that prompted the session, though, is far from finished. The rift between Mr Yeltsin and the Soviet-era parliament has never been wider.

So far the only victim of the violence predicted when Mr Yeltsin seized emergency powers 10 days ago is Alexander Golishnikov, a conservative deputy struck over the head with a handbag. But the risk of wider strife remains.

Any hope of an early end to the crisis vanished yesterday when Congess, Russia's highest legislature, did its best to sabotage Mr Yeltsin's last weapon - a national referendum to decide who should rule the country.

It was Mr Yeltsin's determination on a popular vote that has led to the past week's explosion of political tension. Appearing on television 10 days ago to announce 'special rule', he insisted that only a referendum could save Russia from a 'second October revolution'. Congress's first response was to try and impeach him. It failed. Yesterday it moved to disarm him.

Mr Yeltsin has risked his future on a vote of confidence he plans to hold, on 25 April, on himself and Congress. Deputies now say they want to hold a different referendum of their own, putting four questions, including one on whether Mr Yeltsin's unpopular economic reforms should continue. They have also stipulated that at least 50 per cent of all eligible voters - rather than just half of votes cast - must say yes for the result to be valid.

'They have done everything to spoil the referendum for the President,' said Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov. Mr Kostikov, who earlier in the day denounced Congress as an 'infernal machine of destruction', suggested that Mr Yeltsin will press on regardless with a parallel poll. Rather than solving a constitututional muddle over which branch of power should have the final say, the referendum - or possibly referendums - now seems likely to drive the wedge between parliament and President deeper.

Mr Yeltsin's supporters are furious. 'Their push can prevail for some time. But if it does not vanish, our society will vanish just as ancient Rome and Babylon vanished,' said Oleg Basilashvili, a liberal deputy.

The parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, declared victory. Congress, he said in a closing speech, had saved Russia from 'the worst times of totalitarianism, a rift in society and maybe civil war'. But he also acknowleged the fight was far from over: 'For the first time in Russia we have managed to prevent unconstitutional actions, but the thrust of them has not yet been completely stopped.'

At the start of the Congress, Moskovsky Komsomolets published a cartoon showing deputies armed with axes and wearing executioner's masks. 'Enough talk,' read the caption. 'To work.' And work they did.

They approved a slew of resolutions hacking away at Mr Yeltsin's powers and prestige. They rescinded a 1991 decree that allows him to appoint regional watchdogs; they seized control of national television and radio; they called for the disbanding of dozens of presidential agencies and research groups; they also rebuffed a compromise pact calling for early parliamentary and presidential elections in November.

Once again, Mr Yeltsin has been forced on to the defensive. He now faces the same question he did two weeks ago after an ealier emergency session: how to counter-attack? He has few options left, short of a full-scale crackdown backed by tanks rather than just threats.

He has already tried to impose 'special rule' and bypass Congress. The move merely triggered more attacks. Mr Yeltsin's only consolation is that he escaped impeachment. 'The communist coup d'etat did not take place,' he shouted on Red Square on Sunday evening, 'The people have won. Reforms have won. Democracy has won.'

In reality, no one has won. When the Congress opened, Mr Yeltsin announced to journalists that he expected a draw. That suggested they are playing the same game. They are not. Ever since Mr Yeltsin anounced 'special rule' on television, the two sides have been following a completely different sets of rules. Mr Yeltsin has dropped, or at least softened his plans for what amounted to presidential rule. None the less, he still shows every intention of ignoring the Congress and appealing instead to what, since he stormed out of the Politburo in 1987, has been the only source of his legitimacy: popular support. And Congress, by re-drawing the terms of any referendum, is determined to stop him.

(Photograph omitted)