Yeltsin offers political truce

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin went on television last night to explain his plan for ending a damaging power struggle with parliament which, if accepted, would enable Russia to concentrate on solving its dire economic problems. But he warned viewers that as talks with leaders of the Communist-era assembly were far from easy he might still have to call on the people to settle the crisis of authority in a referendum, preparations for which were continuing.

'Russia is tired of tension and confrontation. I want to make 1993 the year of the economy, political peace and creative endeavour,' he said in a broadcast which many Russians, ground down by economic hardship and weary of political bickering, may only have been watching because it was strategically screened just before the popular American soap opera Santa Barbara.

The President, looking relaxed in a cardigan as he was filmed at his dacha, did come over well, however, saying that it was ordinary people who suffered from the present political mess and it was only dark forces which had an interest in seeing reform fail. Now the ball is in the court of Mr Yeltsin's rival, the parliamentary chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov.

Mr Yeltsin said threatening the referendum, set for 11 April, was the only way to make parliament discuss an agreement between the executive and legislature.

Mr Yeltsin's plan to obviate the referendum, made to leading deputies on Wednesday, is for a truce whereby he and parliament would refrain from encroaching on each other's prerogatives until a constitutional assembly could write a new constitution to replace the Soviet one. The constitutional assembly would gather for that specific purpose and then dissolve itself to ensure the delegates 'worked for Russia and not themselves', Mr Yeltsin said. The new constitution would finally make clear whether Russia was to have a powerful president as in France and the US or a largely figure-head president and strong parliament as in Germany. Until then the Constitutional Court would police the power-sharing agreement, making the president resign if he broke it or dissolving parliament if it exceeded its powers.

There was a sting in the tail of this seemingly conciliatory offer. Parliament must allow the government, which answers to Mr Yeltsin, to manage federal property; and in future, the assembly could only instruct the central bank, which it controls, to issue new credits with cabinet approval. The parliament has obstructed reform chiefly by interfering in the privatisation of state property and by spending public money when the cabinet is trying to fight inflation.