Police keep apart Russian crowds: President Yeltsin throws down gauntlet to MPs blocking his reforms as demonstrators take to the streets

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CARRYING placards with the message, 'We Still Believe', some 5,000 supporters of President Boris Yeltsin yesterday marched to the White House (parliament) to mark the second anniversary of the defeat of Russia's hardline coup. Already gathered near the legislature were about the same number of Communists and Russian nationalists chanting 'Yeltsin Judas', but police on horseback kept the two groups of demonstrators apart at the point where a clash might have occurred.

Determined to maintain freedom of speech, which is Russia's main tangible achievement in the two years since the putsch, Mr Yeltsin allowed both his supporters and his most bitter opponents to march. The conservatives were given permission to rally at the White House first and they were supposed to move on to make room for the democrats to occupy the area later.

But leaders of the hardline crowd shouted 'stay, stay' and most of their followers were still there when the democrats arrived. Mr Yeltsin's supporters were funnelled by police around the side of the building to a square where they held their rally. Later they were planning to hold a religious service in memory of the three young men who died resisting the coup plotters' tanks in August 1991.

The crowds were far smaller than those that ringed the White House during the dramatic attempt to overthrow the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Perhaps it was the heavy rain but more likely it was apathy and disillusionment with politicians of all stripes that kept people away. Those who did join the rallies did not always fit the usual stereotypes. Among the hardliners were young people, some selling anti- Semitic newspapers, while Mr Yeltsin had no shortage of pensioners, who have borne the brunt of economic hardship, still ready to express their loyalty to him.

Among the hardliners was Tatyana Kozikova, a lawyer, who said she had been at the White House two years ago as an observer because she had found the coup 'an entertaining farce'. Was the meeting she was now attending a farce too? 'No, this is a serious movement and it will grow. Yeltsin's reforms have not been in the interests of the majority of the people. Most of us have got poorer and we feel he offers us no future,' she said.

On the other side was Gennady Solovei, an engineer and defender of the White House two years ago, who wore camouflage fatigues and helped to maintain order among the crowd. He still supported Mr Yeltsin although he complained that the President was not decisive enough. 'He should get rid of that dreadful parliament,' he said.

That is precisely what Mr Yeltsin set out to do yesterday with a written request to the deputies of the Soviet- era legislature to submit to pre-term elections this autumn. Mr Yeltsin's arch-rival, the parliamentary speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, has said there will be no early poll and the President's move was seen as a formality before he tries to force the issue.

'Each of you (MPs) has the right to face the voters once again to confirm their trust,' Mr Yeltsin said in his letter. 'If we are really concerned with the fate of Russia more than with our own short-term interests, then we should let the citizens of Russia have the chance to form an effective power structure without delay,' he said.

Some MPs may be prepared to break ranks with Mr Khasbulatov and accept elections but they are likely to insist that Mr Yeltsin call an early presidential poll as well. The President believes his popular mandate is strong enough since he won a vote of confidence in the April referendum. Mr Yeltsin said on Thursday that he had a plan to force elections if the deputies refused to co-operate with him, although he would not reveal details beyond promising that the army would not be involved in politics.

(Photograph omitted)