Yeltsin seeks showdown: President's call for referendum to decide who rules Russia causes uproar in parliament and panic in Moscow

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN, exasperated by a conservative Congress that he feels has done nothing but obstruct his reforms, called yesterday for a referendum to decide whether he or deputies elected before the collapse of Communism should rule Russia.

President Yeltsin's surprise move caused uproar in parliament and panic in Moscow but towards the end of the day there were signs of a new political dialogue.

The legislature moved counter-proposals for a referendum on early joint elections for both the presidency and Congress. 'The president has declared war on his own country, on his own people,' a prominent hardliner said. 'This is purely and simply a coup.' Addressing the deputies a day after they had rejected his candidate for Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, Mr Yeltsin used unusually strong language to accuse them of blocking reform and seeking power without responsibility.

'The walls of this hall have turned red because of endless insults and gutter-style cursing at specific people, because of anger, rudeness and loose behavior, because of the dirt that is inundating the Congress, because of morbid ambitions of failed politicians, their brawls and disgrace in full view of the world,' he said.

'The Congress has proved that normal work is impossible. Not a single urgent practical issue has been solved in the interests of Russian citizens. To reject, to destroy and to silence those who disagree - such is the atmosphere of the Congress . . . It is you, citizens of Russia, who must make the choice (of who rules). In your hands lies the fate of reform.'

'What they (the conservatives) failed to do in August 1991, they have decided to repeat now by way of a creeping coup.'

Mr Yeltsin, who was elected in June 1991, was particularly scornful of the parliament's chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, who he said was trying to return Russia to the Communist system, which had been 'damned by its own people and denounced by the whole world. This is not even a way backwards, this is a way to nowhere.'

At the end of the speech Mr Khasbulatov immediately offered his resignation but returned to the podium when he realised that most of the 1,040 deputies had stayed in the hall in his support. He later hinted at impeaching the President and suggested that Mr Yeltsin move his offices out of the Kremlin.

Mr Yeltsin had already stalked out of the hall followed by about 200 MPs loyal to him, and he issued a decree reappointing the entire cabinet, with Mr Gaidar at its head as acting Prime Minister.

Back in the hall, Russia's Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, announced he could not support Mr Yeltsin. On the streets there were rumours that riot police were being sent to the Red Square area to prevent clashes between pro- and anti-Yeltsin demonstrators. Dozens of heavy trucks carrying banners supporting the President circled in convoy around the Kremlin, but the special squads did not turn up and the protests, involving a few hundred people on each side, were peaceful.

Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, thought civil strife an unlikely consequence of the political crisis.

The Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, cancelled a visit to Germany, which seemed ominous, but then assured the people the army would not take sides. The Congress flexed its muscles, however, by removing control of the parliamentary guard from the Interior Ministry.

According to the constitution, a referendum can be organised if one third of Congress deputies or one million members of the public ask for one. Mr Yeltsin went in the afternoon to Moscow's Lenin Komsomol car factory, where he appealed to workers to sign a petition for the referendum.

Mr Yeltsin wants to hold the vote next month. If he wins, new parliamentary elections will be held in March. If he loses, he will resign. The Congress later came up with a counter-proposal to hold a referendum on early elections for both the presidency and parliament in the belief that Mr Yeltsin, in a field of presidential candidates, might well lose.

'We are not against a referendum but not in the form which amounts to abolishing one of the branches of power,' said the resolution.

The chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, later called on Mr Yeltsin and Mr Khasbulatov to meet under his auspices to seek a compromise. Backing down from his earlier stance, Mr Khasbulatov said he was prepared for a dialogue with the President, while Itar-Tass news agency said the two leaders were to meet at the court today. Last night, however, Mr Yeltsin postponed the meeting, saying he was ill.

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