Yeltsin welcomes moment of truth

AFTER months of watching their leaders wrestling for power, Russians today have a chance to break the political deadlock by voting in a referendum on whether President Boris Yeltsin or the Soviet-era parliament should lead their broken country into the future. It remains to be seen whether enough voters will overcome their deep disillusion with politics and go to the polls. If the turnout is not sufficiently large, there is a danger that the vote will decide nothing and the whole exercise will prove to have been a waste of time and public funds.

The voters are being asked four questions:

Do you have confidence in President Yeltsin?

Do you approve of his socio-economic policies since 1992?

Do you consider it necessary to hold early presidential elections?

Do you consider it necessary to hold early parliamentary elections?

Mr Yeltsin hopes voters will say da, da, nyet, da; but his rival, parliamentary chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, is looking for a response of nyet, nyet, da, nyet.

The Constitutional Court has ruled that a majority of those who bother to vote is enough for victory on the first two questions. But on the last two, not just half the valid ballots but half of all registered electors must say 'yes' for the vote to count. Here is the rub. The chances are that Mr Yeltsin will be endorsed personally, but it is much less certain that he will win enough support to force the obstructive parliamentary deputies to face re-election before their term runs out in 1995.

Izvestia on Friday published an opinion poll which should cheer Mr Yeltsin: it predicted a high turnout - up to 75 per cent - of Russia's registered 105 million voters. Fifty-seven per cent were planning to give a vote of confidence to the President, and the poll showed voters balanced 50-50 between supporters and opponents of his reforms. Only 33 per cent of all registered voters wanted new presidential elections, according to the poll, so Mr Yeltsin's job looks safe until his term of office expires in 1996. An overwhelming 57 per cent of all registered voters wanted a new parliament.

If this poll proves accurate and if parliament plays fair, Mr Yeltsin is home and dry. Mr Khasbulatov, who is very unpopular with Russians, said yesterday that if the President won half the entire electorate on question four, 'I personally will resign . . . leave my post and persuade the deputies to give up their powers'. But if Mr Yeltsin receives less support than Izvestia predicted, he can expect a whole new round of fighting with the assembly, which will immediately refuse to recognise his victory. The hardliners have vowed to resist - with force if necessary - any attempt by Mr Yeltsin to change the constitution and tilt the balance of power in favour of the presidency after the referendum.

Despite a dirty referendum campaign, in which the hardliners tried to undermine Mr Yeltsin with accusations of corruption against his ministers, the President was in an upbeat mood on the eve of the poll. In a television broadcast to his home region of Sverdlovsk, he said: 'I believe, as always, that you will be able to see through and reject an unprecedented flood of demagoguery and open lies . . . I believe that you will be able to decide whom and what to believe.'

(Photograph omitted)

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