Yeltsin set to ditch his mutinous deputy: Referendum results 'go-ahead for wholesale reform'

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin will use an emphatic vote of confidence from voters to attempt a sweeping reform of Russia's political system that would abolish the post of his mutinous vice-president and scrap the Congress of People's Deputies, senior aides said yesterday.

A deputy prime minister, Sergei Shakhrai, described Sunday's referendum as a mandate for constitutional reform. Mikhail Poltoranin, one of Mr Yeltsin's closest confidants, said it reduced conservative opponents in the Congress of People's Deputies to 'political eunuchs'.

Both suggested that Mr Yeltsin would by-pass congress if it blocked plans to reshape Russia into a strong presidential republic. Mr Yeltsin tried unsuccessfully to do this last month when he declared 'special rule' by decree. Some supporters say he now has the mandate to make another attempt stick. But such a course would be fraught with risk.

According to Mr Shakhrai, President Yeltsin will announce his next step at an expanded cabinet meeting tomorrow. 'There will be no states of emergency or cavalry charges,' he said.

Aside from constitutional changes, another demand from Mr Yeltsin's camp is likely to be the dismissal of the head of Russia's Central Bank, Viktor Gerashchenko. Anatoly Chubais, a deputy prime minister responsible for privatisation, said yesterday that the referendum had given Mr Yeltsin a mandate to sack the bank chairman, who reports to parliament and has been accused of sabotaging attempts to control inflation.

With nearly all votes counted, the Electoral Commission said that Mr Yeltsin had won 58 per cent in a vote of confidence and 53 per cent for his free-market reforms, despite the hardship they have brought for most people. Nearly two-thirds voted for early parliamentary elections.

But support for early elections, though considerable among those who voted, amounted to only 42 per cent of the total electorate. Under stringent rules set by Congress, half of Russia's 105 million voters needed to back early polls for them to be held.

The results give Mr Yeltsin a moral triumph but leave open the question of how this can be translated into political gains. 'There has been no revolution, contrary to what some mass media are trying to assert,' the Electoral Commission Chairman, Vasily Kazakov, said.

Mr Yeltsin's foes either dismiss the referendum as meaningless or claim it as a victory for themselves. 'The results show that Mr Yeltsin has no popular support and provide him with the opportunity to carry out his promise and resign,' said Gennady Sayenko, a leader of the powerful hardline Russian Unity faction.

Mr Yeltsin has not appeared in public since the poll, issuing only a brief statement hailing voters' 'patriotic awareness of the importance of the issues put before the people'. Central to his strategy is a draft constitution that would curtail the role of parliament as a rival source of authority. The Congress of People's Deputies, a bastion of Mr Yeltsin's conservative critics, would be replaced by a weaker bi-cameral legislature. The job of vice-president, held by Alexander Rutskoi - a former air force pilot in the vanguard of Mr Yeltsin's critics - would go. Mr Rutskoi yesterday continued attacking his erstwhile ally and running-mate, saying economic reform was destroying Russia: 'By October the situation with the economy and finances will be catastrophic.'

But the next round of Russia's debilitating power struggle seems likely to be fought over political, not economic, reform. 'The people want a strong and powerful state without political Bacchanalia,' said Mr Poltoranin, head of the Federal Information Agency. He said Mr Yeltsin might try to rule by decree should parliament reject plans to replace the constitution. 'The President will be forced to look independently for a tool to boost reforms,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)