Yeltsin escapes to rural refuge

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin, under siege from conservative critics and dogged by rumours of ill health, left Moscow unexpectedly yesterday and retreated to his country villa for what was described as a 12-day holiday.

His abrupt departure comes at a time of bitter confrontation with Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of Russia's conservative legislature, and threatens to prolong a paralysing constitutional deadlock over power-sharing.

A presidential spokesman said Mr Yeltsin, who has a long history of vanishing from public view at times of political crisis, was fit but tired. Mr Khasbulatov responded to his rival's holiday break by calling for a popular vote of confidence in the President. The vote, he told a meeting of the parliamentary leadership, should be held in tandem with a national referendum on the shape of a new Russian constitution.

Mr Khasbulatov has been a fierce critic of the constitutional referendum, scheduled for 11 April but put in jeopardy by warnings from regional leaders that it will only fuel political tensions. Mr Khasbulatov's call for a vote on President Yeltsin himself suggests more tactics than serious intent: the more confused the referendum becomes the less likely it will ever be held.

According to an opinion poll published yesterday, 48 per cent of Moscow residents believe President Yeltsin should have more power than the Congress of People's Deputies, Russia's full legislature which meets only twice a year and is stacked with conservatives elected under Communism. Only 19 per cent said they favoured the Congress. Perhaps more important, though, is the widespread apathy revealed by the poll. Only one in three people said they would definitely vote in a referendum. The level of public interest is certainly even lower outside the capital.

Mr Yeltsin and his supporters have championed the constitutional poll as the only way out of the current political crisis. Russia is now governed under a repeatedly revised version of the old Soviet constitution, which leaves unclear the balance of power between branches of government.

Last week, however, President Yeltsin backed away from his earlier insistence that a referendum be held. Calling for a year-long 'moratorium on political fist- fighting', he said he was ready to abandon the referendum if Mr Khasbulatov agreed to stop chipping away at his authority.

The two men held a first, inconclusive round of talks last Thursday and were to have met again later today. Mr Yeltsin's 'holiday' has put the meeting in doubt. A presidential spokesman said Mr Yeltsin had cancelled all appointments with foreign visitors but might, or might not, meet Mr Khasbulatov. 'The meeting is the business of the two men,' he said.

Rather than deciding the key issue of power-sharing, the referendum has so far only complicated it. Neither side can agree on what questions should be put to voters. There are currently 12 questions under discussion, most involving highly technical issues of constitutional law. Under an agreement mediated by Russia's Constitutional Court during the last session of the Congress of People's Deputies, both parliament and president can submit alternative lists of questions to electors.

France's Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas, cancelled a visit to Moscow planned for today. According to Tass, 'scheduling reasons' were cited.