Yeltsin throws down gauntlet: President will call plebiscite on who rules Russia as country slides into anarchy

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The Independent Online
There is a mood - and all the confusion - of revolution in the Great Kremlin Palace.

After three days of rowdy debate, Russia's Congress of People's Deputies yesterday handed President Boris Yeltsin his most humiliating political defeat, chopping away at his power, challenging the future of economic reform and stirring alarm that the country could slide into anarchy.

'The smooth, reformist period has ended,' said Sergei Shakrai, the Deputy Prime Minister. 'The Congress has led the country to a threshold beyond which lies the path to revolution, street rule and chaos.'

Mr Yeltsin, ridiculed from the floor and snubbed in a vote rejecting his latest power-sharing proposals, stalked from the hall and vowed to take his case for who should rule Russia to the people. He will organise a poll, advisers said, to be held on 25 April.

'Yeltsin left the Congress because he understands that there is only one partner left with whom he can talk. That is the people,' said Vyacheslav Kostikov, the presidential spokesman. 'No action by the Congress will stop the President holding the referendum.' He accused deputies of reviving the old Bolshevik slogan: 'All power to the Soviets.'

Mr Yeltsin's defiant course, though, is fraught with danger. Sergei Baburin, a leader of the nationalist Russian Unity group that has launched the most venomous attacks on Mr Yeltsin, warned of dangerous confrontation ahead. 'If a state starts asking 'Who is stronger - the President or parliament?', then that state is on the verge of civil war.'

Mr Yeltsin's walk-out, joined by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, came after the Congress rejected amendments to a resolution fixing the balance of power and scapping a truce worked out last December. Mr Yeltsin lost the vote by a majority of 495-326.

The resolution reduces the President's authority over appointment of four key ministers, keeps the head of the Central Bank and state property fund under parliamentary control and cancels plans for a referendum agreed by Congress in December.

Despite the vote, Mr Yeltsin insisted he would organise a poll of his own. In the absence of a referendum, such a plebiscite would have no legal standing, but might be interpreted by Mr Yeltsin as renewing the basis for the moral authority gained in his victory at the polls in 1991.

Congress and the Supreme Soviet are given great power by a constitution inherited from the Soviet era but have no clear popular mandate. Congress deputies, more than 80 per cent of whom are former Communists, won their seats in 1990 in a poll stacked in favour of the Communist Party.

Even if Mr Yeltsin does organise a plebiscite, though, there is no certainty he will win it. 'If people do not support him he will do what General de Gaulle did and step down,' said Anatoly Shabad, a staunch ally of the President.

Amid angry confusion, however, there were still some signs last night that not all avenues of compromise had been closed. After Congress adjourned yesterday afternoon, President Yeltsin agreed to a crisis meeting with Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Congress chairman; Alexander Rutskoi, his Vice-President; and Valery Zorkin, the head of Russia's Constitutional Court.

Conservatives are exultant over Mr Yeltsin's humiliation and in no mood for compromise. 'It is very dangerous now. The Congress may go even further,' said Mr Shabad, predicting that today it may try to oust Andrei Kozyrev, Mr Yeltsin's pro-western Foreign Minister, and Anatoli Chubais, the Privatisation Minister and the architect of Russia's most important economic reform. Hardliners have also moved to take take control of Commonwealth Television and the national Itar-Tass news agency.

In a clear attempt to unnerve his opponents and slow their onslaught, Mr Yeltsin hinted at the possibility of emergency presidential rule, saying he might be forced to take 'other additional measures'. But Mr Yeltsin has been making similar threats since before the start of the last Congress and many doubt his willingness to carry them out.

Ivan Smirnov, a Yeltsin foe from St Petersburg, said: 'He makes threats but he can do nothing. He has no force. He has no respect.'

Mr Khasbulatov issued a threat of his own: Congress would today 'watch attentively that the executive observes the constitution'. Any alleged violation could be used to initiate impeachment proceedings against Mr Yeltsin. But even for his most bitter foes that may be one step too far.