Although his aides insisted that Mr Yeltsin still intended to submit himself to the will of the people - on 25 April, the same day as Congress is planning to hold a popular vote of no confidence in his rule - another Yeltsin climb-down seemed likely.
At a meeting with 100 reformist MPs, the President was warned of the 'alarming situation in the army', and urged to cancel his plebiscite. 'Most of the speakers said that it will not be expedient to hold two separate referendums,' said one MP, Nikolai Arzhannikov. 'It will be another step to break-up.'
This less than ringing endorsement came as the Supreme Soviet, the standing parliament, voted 20bn roubles (approximately pounds 20m) for the referendum sponsored by Congress. It is thus almost certain that on 25 April voters will be asked by Congress to reach a verdict on the President's performance; on his economic reforms; and on whether there should be early presidential and legislative elections. Mr Yeltsin's referendum would ask whether voters approved of the President; the Congress; and a new constitution for Russia.
The rules also differ. The outcome of Mr Yeltsin's plebiscite is determined by a clear majority of votes cast, while the Congress referendum requires a majority of eligible voters. The polls show that Mr Yeltsin's popularity is about 60 per cent, but a majority disapproves of his government's economic reforms. But since turn-out is bound to be low, even with a high personal rating Mr Yeltsin would be far short of the 50 per cent of eligible votes needed for victory.
The President is to visit Canada this week for a summit with President Bill Clinton, to discuss aid for Russia, a move that could provide a boost for Mr Yeltsin during the campaign.
'The Congress resolution envisages conditions for the referendum which make its results negative for the President before the vote even starts.' Thus did Sergei Shakhrai, one of Mr Yeltsin's leading legal advisers, sum up his leader's predicament. Mr Shakhrai is one of the diminishing band still calling on the President to pursue his own vote. 'In this situation,' Mr Shakhrai noted, 'the executive branch has one way out - to go ahead with a separate national poll as proposed by the President.'
Another course of action, suggested by Mr Yeltsin's supporters in parliament, would be to refer the Congress referendum to the Constitutional Court. Though the latter, led by Valery Zorkin, is less than friendly to Mr Yeltsin, even it might be persuaded that Congress's recent actions are blatantly unconstitutional. And even if it does not, it would be under pressure to arrive at a Solomon-like decision that would bring the President and Congress back from the brink of civil war.
This is the avenue that Ostankino, the national radio and television company, is pursuing in an effort to rid itself of its new masters. The company, under President Yeltsin's control until Sunday, is trying to reverse a decision by Congress to take over the national broadcasting media. Until the court ruling, which may take some time, Ostankino has declared that it will continue to take its orders from the President.Reuse content