Yeltsin bows to Congress on vote: Referendum challenge for Russian President

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin has dropped plans to hold his own plebiscite next month, a close aide said yesterday, and will fight his conservative rivals on their own terms: a national referendum rigged to ensure that he has little chance of securing the mandate he needs.

The decision, if confirmed by Mr Yeltsin himself, should spare Russian voters a 'war of referendums' and clear at least some of the muddle surrounding a poll set for 25 April to decide whether Russians support the President and his economic policies.

But it does little to ease Mr Yeltsin's war with the Congress of People's Deputies and its chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, who went on television to lecture the President on the need for humility: 'The President is not a monarch. Nor is he a secretary general. He is merely a constitutional president.'

The news of Mr Yeltsin's acceptance of the referendum was given by Mikhail Poltoranin, one of Mr Yeltsin's closest confidants, who said: 'The President is not going to come out with a separate vote and he will take part in the referendum whatever its rules are.' But this directly contradicted remarks earlier in the week by Mr Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, who said Mr Yeltsin would boycott a referendum endorsed by the Congress and hold his own poll.

Mr Yeltsin and his opponents in the conservative-dominated Congress have been fighting for months over a referendum. Mr Yeltsin wanted a simple vote of confidence in himself and tried to impose 'special rule' to ensure the vote was set on his terms.

The Congress, called into emergency session last Friday, retaliated by trying to impeach him. When this failed, hardline deputies fixed their own ground rules for a referendum. Voters will now be asked not just whether they support Mr Yeltsin but also his economic policies.

Congress also stipulated that in order to win Mr Yeltsin must secure not merely the support of half those who vote but half the total electorate. Such support is virtually impossible.

Mr Yeltsin has appealed to the Constitutional Court to try to get the rules changed, but time is fast running out. He will be out of the country this weekend for a summit meeting with President Clinton in Vancouver, leaving him only three weeks to prepare for what could be the final battle of his political career.

Mr Clinton, launching a campaign to convince Americans of the need for increased aid to Russia, insisted yesterday that it was not 'an act of charity' but a policy of enlightened self-interest comparable to the help extended to vanquished Germany and Japan after the Second World War.

'We must do what we can and we must act now,' the President said in Maryland, 48 hours before his summit with Mr Yeltsin. The aid package he would present then, and the further funds he would be seeking from Congress, 'are an investment in our own future' that would bring huge future benefits to the US economy.