The Russian Referendum: Yeltsin in no mood for compromise: Although latest opinion polls show considerable support for the President, clear-cut victory on all issues tomorrow is far from certain

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MOSCOW - It was one of the few moments when Boris Yeltsin showed much interest in the task at hand. 'We need a tough president,' read the banner held by three supporters outside a grimy Siberian coal mine near Novokuznetsk. President Yeltsin came to life, shaking off a grumpy fatigue he blames on too many nights with only three hours of sleep. 'Don't worry about toughness,' he assured them. 'If all goes well on 25 April, everything will be all right.'

Tomorrow, Russia's 105 million registered voters get a chance to say whether they share the sentiments on display last week outside the Abashevskaya Colliery in the Kuzbass. At least this is the issue President Yeltsin wants voters to decide: who should be in charge?

The stakes are immense, involving the fate of not only Mr Yeltsin but that of free-market reform and Russia's attitude to the outside world. 'We shall decide one simple question during the 25 April referendum: the question is whether we shall all face the firing squad,' says Yegor Gaidar, Mr Yeltsin's former prime minister. He was exaggerating but his remark captures the mood of a campaign that, after a lacklustre start, has recently stirred a frenzy of apocalyptic warnings and mud-slinging.

President Yeltsin sees the referendum as a second chance to do what he failed to do after the August 1991 coup - an opportunity to reshape Russia's political system into a powerful presidential republic. For his opponents, led by his own mutinous Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, and the parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, it is a last chance to stop Mr Yeltsin from impoverishing the country and installing a dictatorship.

It is now four months since Mr Yeltsin staged the first of a series of dramatic but fruitless walk-outs from the Congress of People's Deputies. Each time he vowed never to return and threatened to take his case to the people. And each time he came back, weathering yet another onslaught on his policies and authority from a legislature stacked with his opponents.

Finally, though, it is the turn of the voters. Ballots have been sent out to more than 96,000 polling stations from Karelia on the border with Finland to distant Pacific islands 11 time zones away. After months of inconclusive feuding in Moscow, Mr Yeltsin is asking ordinary Russians a simple question: who should rule, parliament or the president, and how?

But there is a problem. This is not the real question that is being asked. Stalin mocked elections as a farce. Voters, he said, decide nothing. It is the people who count their votes that matter. Tomorrow, people will cast their ballots. But as important, or perhaps even more so, will be what comes next: what do the results mean?

Mr Yeltsin had wanted a simple choice between himself and the Congress. And this is how much of the Russian media, heavily biased in the president's favour, has presented tomorrow's poll. Argumenty i Fakty, Russian's biggest-selling publication, published a special election issue with a front-page mock-up of President Yeltsin pictured as a Russian Everyman in an embroidered peasant's jacket and Mr Khasbulatov looking like Stalin in military uniform.

The real choice is far more complicated. The four questions being put to voters have not made for a catchy campaign. Mr Yeltsin urges the answers da-da-nyet-da: confidence in himself and reform, new elections for parliament. His opponents want nyet-nyet-da-nyet: rejection of Mr Yeltsin and his reforms, early elections for the presidency.

A further complication is that the ground rules set for the first pair of questions are different from those for the second. Mr Yeltsin will be judged to have won a vote of confidence in himself and his policies if he gets support from half the turn-out. For early elections, though, the threshold has been set dauntingly high: a yes vote from half the entire electorate.

'Both sides will claim the support of tens of millions of people,' predicts Sergei Shakhrai, a deputy prime minister and one of Mr Yeltsin's principal strategists. 'Clear-cut victories do not exist in politics and this referendum will not bring a clear victory.'

Opinion polls have swung wildly. Most show a clear majority in favour of Mr Yeltsin. Support for his economic reforms is more muted, but he could still get a slim majority. The one issue on which the vast majority of the electorate seems to agree is the need to bring forward parliamentary elections, now not due until 1995. In contrast, there is little interest in forcing Mr Yeltsin to face electors before his term expires in three years.

Mr Yeltsin has already let it be known how he intends to read the results. Once again, he insists the time for compromise with his opponents has passed. 'Today my followers blame me for having compromised too often,' he said in a magazine interview. 'This should not have been done. Thinking over my actions during the last Congress usually at night, I see that was indeed my mistake.'

The Kremlin has denied claims by Mr Khasbulatov that Mr Yeltsin intends to impose a presidential dictatorship. But plans have been made.

A hint of where these will lead came yesterday with the publication of the key points of the new constitution Mr Yeltsin wants, a document first drafted for Leonid Brezhnev in 1978.

Under Mr Yeltsin's proposed constitution, the Conress of People's Deputies will be scrapped, replaced by a two-chamber standing parliament called the Federal Assembly. It would also give Mr Yeltsin many of the powers he has fought for in vain for months: the right to appoint judges to the Constitutional and Supreme Courts and to name the head of the Central Bank.

According to one presidential aide, a stack of decrees has been prepared for release after the referendum. Senior officials suggest Mr Yeltsin may well try to revive many of the provisions of the 'special rule' he tried to impose last month. 'I don't want to divulge all of my secrets before April 26,' said President Yeltsin ominously on Thursday, 'but I want to say that it will be necessary to take a number of tough, firm measures.'

His supporters at the Abashevskaya Colliery, at least, will be pleased. His opponents, though, are already crying foul. And no matter how voters chose to sprinkle their das and nyets tomorrow, there will be a long struggle ahead to decide the most important question of all. This is the question not on the ballot papers: who should rule Russia?

(Photograph and map omitted)