Opponents sneer at referendum results: Yeltsin faces return to square one in power struggle - Deadlock pushes economy towards disaster

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ALL THE Soviet-era deputies who opposed reform in the name of the people should accept that the people had rejected them and bow out gracefully, said Vasily Shakhnovksy, Moscow city council's business manager, as he announced the city's preliminary referendum results, which showed convincing support for President Boris Yeltsin.

Unfortunately, Mr Yeltsin's enemies are not gentlemen who play by the rules and already yesterday it was clear they intend to fight on to preserve their privileged positions.

Even before the official results for the whole of Russia were available, the parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and the Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, were dismissing the poll as meaningless. 'This referendum has brought no losers nor winners,' sneered Mr Khasbulatov. 'It has split society further and weakened Russian statehood, as predicted. Apart from this setback for the state, this referendum decides absolutely nothing.'

Mr Rutskoi, who was elected with Mr Yeltsin in 1991 but has become a rival, said there could be 'no talk of overall popular support' for the President. 'So what happened? We held a sociological poll and there is no popular support. That is why all this (reform) should be changed.' The referendum had been unfair and the media biased in favour of Mr Yeltsin.

Unofficial preliminary results for the entire country suggest some 58 per cent of voters expressed confidence in Mr Yeltsin and a majority were in favour of calling fresh parliamentary elections, although not enough to cross the threshold set by the Constitutional Court to make the outcome binding. In Moscow, 75 per cent gave a vote of confidence to the President, 70 per cent supported his econonic reforms, 20 per cent wanted early presidential elections and 51 per cent wanted new elections to parliament.

What next? Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, said his boss was analysing the results. If his past behaviour is anything to go by, Mr Yeltsin will take his time before acting. The opposition will probably go on as if nothing has happened until the President makes a move. If he keeps the promise he made before the referendum and starts introducing a new constitution tipping the balance in favour of the executive, then Mr Khasbulatov can be expected to call another session of the legislature's parent body, the Congress of People's Deputies, and the hardline MPs who drew back from impeaching Mr Yeltsin in March may go through with it this time.

Outside parliament, there might even be violent provocations from a new alliance of extreme Communists and nationalists and the fascists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky who, before the poll, said they were prepared to resort to force if necessary to stop Mr Yeltsin from changing the political status quo to suit himself.

So, despite winning what appears to be a spectacular victory, Mr Yeltsin could find himself back at square one against the power-hungry Mr Khasbulatov, who has moved into the luxury apartment of the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and Mr Rutskoi, who Muscovites say only half-jokingly is learning the presidential oath off by heart.

Mr Yeltsin has vowed not to use force to overcome his opponents, although he would probably dearly like to do so and many Russians would applaud if he did. But Mr Yeltsin knows the West would not be impressed and also realises that he cannot depend on the army.