Yeltsin faces final showdown: President vows to hold referendum as negotiations break down

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin and Russia's Soviet-era parliament hurtled towards a head-on collision yesterday despite attempts by both sides to slow the explosive momentum of their runaway power struggle.

Lurching between talk of compromise and angry threats, Mr Yeltsin and his parliamentary foes seemed locked in a confrontation that neither can afford to lose but which neither has the strength to win.

Setting the stage for a final showdown, the standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, voted overwhelmingly to convene an emergency session tomorrow of the full legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, to consider whether Mr Yeltsin should be impeached.

It also demanded that Mr Yeltsin himself attend to explain his decision to seize special powers in the run-up to a referendum he has called for 25 April. Mr Yeltsin insists he will ignore any attempt by parliament to unseat him and is unlikely to show up.

In a final plea last night, he issued a written statement to legislators urging them not to continue what he called a 'process of self-destruction'. If they did, however, he said he would press on, no matter what, with his plans for a popular vote: 'I warn all state bodies, public groups and officials against any attempt on stability during the period of constitutional transition.'

For all parliament's thunder, however, Mr Yeltsin seems unlikely to be ousted - at least not yet. Despite the lopsided 135-34 vote in favour of a Congress session, even Mr Yeltsin's staunchest foes admit they have little chance of mustering the necessary two-thirds majority for impeachment.

'The chances are minimal,' said Nikolai Pavlov, a leader of the ultra- nationalist National Salvation Front. 'But the Supreme Soviet has no other choice.' Yeltsin supporters agree: 'There will not be enough votes to impeach the President,' said the Deputy Prime Minister, Yuri Yarov.

The mood was summed up by a conservative leader heard in what the US television network ABC said was an accidental recording of an opposition strategy session: 'We've got only 600 votes. We need 694. Unfortunately, we started out on this path and we cannot go back.'

But Mr Yeltsin too is stuck on a perilous course with little room for retreat. Four days after imposing 'special rule' to resist what he said was a 'second October revolution', he tried to mute his earlier thunder. A text of a decree he signed on Saturday but published only yesterday deleted any mention of 'special rule'. But it still calls for unspecified 'urgent measures' and strips parliament of any authority to resist his will.

Signs of a slightly softer line from the Kremlin were followed by a meeting yesterday afternoon between Mr Yeltsin, the parliamentary leader Ruslan Khasbulatov, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and the head of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin. But they ended in failure. 'Each side stuck to their positions,' said a spokesman.

The talks centred on Mr Yeltsin's plans for a referendum on his leadership and on the shape of a new constitution. Mr Khasbulatov has insisted that there is every reason to unseat the President. The Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday that Mr Yeltsin did violate the constitution but Mr Zorkin, its chairman, yesterday said the ruling was neither in favour of impeachment nor against.

Mr Khasbulatov stuck to his guns, telling the Supreme Soviet that Mr Yeltsin did not 'clearly understand the situation in the country'.

Both sides were left in gloomy mood, anxious about a confrontation which, if unresolved, could produce violence instead of just angry debate.