Russians fear return of 'Big Brother'

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RUSSIA'S Security Minister said yesterday that the uprising in Moscow this month took his department by surprise which justified a return to keeping a watch on political militants. 'There should be constant monitoring perhaps not of all parties but of some groupings within them,' Nikolai Golushko said at a press conference.

Among other developments, the Information Ministry issued a permanent ban on a dozen opposition newspapers which were suspended last week. It said the editors of Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya were being dismissed but that the two papers could reopen once they changed their names.

Mr Golushko's words will alarm a number of Russians who fear a return of past abuses. His department is the successor to the KGB which suffered severe cuts because of the failed August 1991 coup in which its then head, Vladimir Kryuchkov, played an important part.

Sergei Stepashin, Mr Golushko's deputy, said that however ill-prepared the security ministry may have been for the violence, it was able to monitor events closely in the parliament, or White House. 'We knew exactly how things were in the White House,' he said. 'We knew how many guns there were, where they were and we told the government. For this reason, the government did all it could to solve the conflict peacefully.'

On the elections, Tass news agency said President Boris Yeltsin's office was drafting a decree for a referendum which would ask simply whether voters agreed with the draft constitution.

Mr Yeltsin's efforts to draw up a constitution were blocked by hardliners in the old parliament which he dissolved on 21 September. The dissolution led to a deputies' sit-in culminating in the violence which shook Moscow on 3 and 4 October. The hardliners wanted to retain the old constitution drawn up under Communist rule. A constitutional assembly first met in June at Mr Yeltsin's initiative to draft a new document.

There was no official confirmation of the Tass report but such a move would remove the need for lengthy parliamentary debate to approve the constitution.

If the referendum is held on 12 December, this could bring the electoral tasks facing voters to four on that day. There will be elections to the State Duma, the lower house of the new parliament, and to the Federation Council, the upper house which will have two representatives from each Russian region or autonomous republic.

Last weekend, Mr Yeltsin set up a special commission to plan reform of the local soviets, or councils, many of which sided with the parliamentary hardliners in their defiance of the President. He asked the commission to report by today with the aim of calling local elections as well on 12 December. The elections were called after troops put down the uprising started by supporters of the hardliners. The official death toll from the fighting now stands at 143.