Yeltsin minister in party ban row

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MOSCOW - Communist and reformist politicians were up in arms yesterday over a call by a senior aide of Boris Yeltsin to have two parties excluded from this month's parliamentary elections because they have criticised the new constitution, writes Helen Womack. The Election Commission is now deciding what to do, mindful that if it does ban the parties, the West will begin to question whether Mr Yeltsin is conducting a free and fair poll.

The President is keen that his draft constitution, increasing the powers of the executive and the centre at the expense of the legislature and the regions, be approved in a referendum coinciding with the elections on 12 December. Last week he told the 13 parties campaigning in the elections that they would lose the right to broadcast their programmes free of charge if they attacked the constitution, an attempt to induce self-censorship.

But a real row erupted yesterday over a call on Monday by the Press and Information Minister, Vladimir Shumeiko, to the Election Commission to ban the Communist Party and the centrist Democratic Party of Russia. They had attacked the constitution instead of trying to 'sell' it to the people, he complained. 'It (the constitution) is the cornerstone of all the ballots that are being held on 12 December.' Gennady Kobyakov, a Communist Party spokesman, retorted angrily: 'It seems to me logical that the constitution is discussed before it is approved. Are we just supposed to applaud it?'

The Election Commission met yesterday but said it needed more time to study the tapes of the two parties' television broadcasts.

Mr Yeltsin signed a decree yesterday restoring the tsarist double-headed eagle as Russia's state emblem, AP reports. He scrapped the Soviet-era seal, a globe framed by ears of corn and a red ribbon proclaiming: 'Workers of the World, Unite]'