Yeltsin backs off referendum plan

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WARNED by regional leaders that he risked tearing Russia apart, President Boris Yeltsin yesterday backed away from plans to take his power struggle with parliament to the people and said he was ready to drop plans for a constitutional referendum.

The referendum, scheduled for 11 April, had been promoted by Mr Yeltsin and his allies as the only way out of a paralysing political deadlock between the legislative and executive branches of government. He now seems to have dropped the plan - which aside from involving huge political risks would cost 20bn roubles (pounds 25m). Instead, Mr Yeltsin wants to bring elections forward by a year. This would mean a new presidential poll in 1995 and parliamentary elections next year.

'Let us proclaim 1993 a year-long moratorium on all political fist-fighting and other major political events. Let us deal with the economy. This is the main thing that can ruin us.'

The offer of a truce, engineered by the head of Russia's Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, suggests that President Yeltsin has given up hopes of using a referendum to axe the Congress of People's Deputies, Russia's unwieldy supreme legislature. Elected under Communism and stacked with Soviet diehards, the Congress has been a constant thorn in Mr Yeltsin's side. At its last session in December, it forced him to dump his reformist Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, in favour of a former energy industry apparatchik, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Russia is currently run under a jerry-built constitution inherited from the Soviet era. Though repeatedly revised since the collapse of Communism, it leaves unclear the question of where ultimate authority should lie. It also burdens the country with two separate parliaments, the Congress, which meets twice a year, and the standing Supreme Soviet.

Mr Yeltsin's change of plans follows a warning yesterday from the leaders of Russia's 20 republics that an April referendum would produce an 'uncontrollable power struggle'. Like Mikhail Gorbachev before him, who had to plead for support from regional leaders, Mr Yeltsin must deal with powerful voices in the provinces. While the old Soviet republics are now independent states, Russia itself is a patchwork of nearly 90 republics and territories with varying degrees of automony. One republic, Chechenya, has already declared independence and another, Tatarstan, sovereignty. A referendum would risk stirring this volatile mix further.

Most vehement of the referendum's opponents is Ruslan Khasbulatov, who, as chairman of both the Congress and the Supreme Soviet, risked losing much of his power. Moderates too have come out against the scheme, including Vice- President Alexander Rutskoi, an erstwhile Yeltsin ally. 'A referendum is fraught with great risk in the current political and economic situation,' said Mr Rutskoi yesterday. Perhaps the strongest argument against a referendum, though, is the political apathy of the general public, which is far more exercised by inflation - expected to be more than 30 per cent this month - than the shape of Russia's constitution.

The referendum's cancellation would mark another setback for Mr Yeltsin. But he might risk even more if the vote went ahead. What question should actually be put to voters has yet to be decided. And even if Mr Yeltsin managed to frame the referendum as a stark choice between himself and parliament, he would be unlikely to get the necessary 50 per cent of registered voters. He is still far more popular than parliament but neither commands much support.

A recent poll showed that only 36 per cent of the population has confidence in the President, higher than 18 per cent for parliament but far lower than 63 per cent who said they had confidence in the church and 59 per cent in the military.