Although it takes days to count the votes across all the 11 time zones of Russia, radicals urged Mr Yeltsin to press home his victory by changing the constitution to strengthen the executive. But a scornful reaction from leading conservatives suggested the President's batlle with the Soviet-era parliament was far from over.
Russians proved to be far less apathetic about the destiny of their country than commentators had predicted and turnout among the 105.5 million voters was about 65.7 per cent, high by the standards of most democracies. Initial results showed that 59.2 per cent of those who took the trouble to vote expressed confidence in Mr Yeltsin personally and 53.6 per cent wanted to go on taking his economic medicine, even though it has been bitter for them.
A majority of participants also favoured fresh parliamentary elections to remove obstructive deputies, but the number of 'yes' votes was only 43.49 per cent of the total registered electorate, short of the 50 per cent required by the Constitutional Court for this decision to be mandatory.
Radicals urged Mr Yeltsin to re- write the Brezhnev-era consitution, which gives power to the parliament and regional councils, and create for Russia a strong presidential system like that of the United States.
Western leaders expressed satisfaction with the result. 'This is a very, very good day, not only for the people of Russia, but for the people of the United States and all the people of the world,' President Bill Clinton said yesterday.
But Mr Yeltsin's hardline enemies, reacting to the results with bad grace and an open contempt for the electorate, said the referendum was meaningless and would change nothing. 'This referendum has brought no losers or winners,' said the parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov. 'I would urge both sides not to be carried away by the results.'
Mr Yeltsin's partner-turned-rival, Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi, was equally dismissive. 'Let us consider,' he said. 'There are 105 million eligible voters. Somewhere around 32 million supported the President and his course. So between 71 and 72 million were either against or did not go to the referendum . . . There can be no talk of overall popular support.'
The battle over the constitution is thus far from over. The wily Mr Khasbulatov, who claims he is a victim of press bias and yesterday compared Mr Yeltsin's media aide, Mikhail Poltoranin, to Hitler's propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, can be expected to call another session of the Congress of People's Deputies, or full parliament, the moment Mr Yeltsin tries to move against him. Then a new attempt to impeach the President could well be on the cards.
Yesterday the oil-rich region of Bashkortostan gave a hint of how the provinces may drift off down paths of their own if they feel the centre cannot hold. Voters in what used to be called Bashkiria had to answer an extra referendum question on whether they wanted economic independence from Moscow, and when the votes were counted it emerged that 75.5 per cent had said 'yes'.
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