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Yesltsin Stripped of More Power; Referendum Set for April 25

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW

The Congress of People's Deputies voted Monday to hold an April 25 referendum under rules stacked against President Boris N. Yeltsin, stripped him of more power and then went home, leaving Russia's leadership as bitterly divided as ever.

The vote at the close of the extraordinary session brought the most turbulent 10 days in Russia's post-Soviet politics to an unsettled end. But it allowed Yeltsin and his conservative enemies to focus the energies of their crippling political deadlock on the first nationwide election campaign since the end of Communist rule 15 months ago.

Yeltsin's spokesman suggested that the president might push ahead with a rival referendum.

The referendum approved by the Congress will ask voters four yes-or-no questions: whether they have confidence in Yeltsin; approve of his economic reforms; want early elections for a new president; and early elections for a new parliament.

Yeltsin pressed for a formula more likely to rid him of the anti-reform Congress. His questions would have obliged him or the lawmakers to face re-election this year if either failed to win approval from half those casting ballots. Sergei M. Shakrai, his legal adviser, said Yeltsin was willing to resign if he failed to achieve such a result.

But the conservative majority of the 1,033-member parliament, in an aggressive mood after failing by just 72 votes Sunday to remove Yeltsin from office, rejected 20 proposals that his supporters put forward.

Under the rules it adopted instead, Yeltsin would fail the confidence test unless he were approved by more than half of Russia's 106 million eligible voters, not just a majority of those casting ballots. Congress rejected an amendment to subject itself to a similar test.

Yeltsin would not be forced to step down if he doesn't get the votes. But the result might give impetus to a new impeachment drive against Russia's first democratically elected leader, whose popularity has eroded since he polled 48 million votes in a six-man field two years ago.

The Congress decided that the same 53 million vote "majority" would be needed to force early elections, a tough standard for voters described these days as indifferent to politics. And even if that test were met, Congress set no deadline for the new elections, saying only that they must be held before five-year terms expire for parliament in 1995 and Yeltsin in 1996.

"The Congress set so many traps and handicaps that it is next to impossible to win the referendum," said Yeltsin spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov. "The president now should think it over carefully with his legal advisers. I don't exclude the possibility that he will hold his own poll."

But many of his supporters and even some opponents said the referendum offers Yeltsin his best opportunity to win public backing for his stalled efforts to steer Russia toward the free market after seven decades of Communism.

Said anti-Yeltsin deputy Oleg V. Plotnikov: "The referendum will be prepared on the lines drawn by the Congress, but let's not deceive ourselves: Boris Nikolaevich (Yeltsin) will pick the fruit by interpreting the results in his favor."

Besides the risk that the referendum might resolve nothing, lawmakers acknowledged another danger, that it might fuel separatist tendencies in this huge multi-ethnic nation's far-flung republics. Such a risk is greater if a low overall voter turnout underscores the weakness of central authority, the lawmakers said.

"... I fear that the republics will take advantage of it in order to bring out the issue of breaking away from Russia, of getting special status," said Sergei Barburin, a leader of the anti-Yeltsin forces.

To reduce that risk, the Congress voted to bar anyone -- Yeltsin or local authorities -- from adding questions to the referendum or holding a separate referendum of their own.

(Optional add end)

It was the Congress' steady assault on presidential power and its refusal to accept a referendum that prompted Yeltsin on March 20 to declare a period of "special rule" to force one by decree. Russia's highest court ruled the move unconstitutional, and Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov called the Congress into session for a vote to remove the president from office.

As fears of military involvement in the stand-off rose, Yeltsin backed down Wednesday, the fourth day of the crisis, and Khasbulatov withdrew his support for impeachment. But when the Congress convened Friday in the Grand Kremlin Palace, the dump-Yeltsin drive took on a life of its own.

After surviving one ouster vote Saturday, an exhausted Yeltsin appealed for talks with Khasbulatov. They produce a deal to hold general elections Nov. 21. But lawmakers elected under Communist rules and unwilling to give up power voted the compromise down Sunday. Instead, they moved again to impeach Yeltsin, adding a move to oust Khasbulatov for good measure. The new attack on Yeltsin drew the biggest street rally in his favor since he resisted the Communist coup of August 1991.

Both men survived the vote but the thwarted Congress opened Monday in a vengeful mood. Deputy Alexander M. Golishnikov appeared on the rostrum with a blood-stained bandage around his head, saying "supporters of pseudo-democracy intoxicated with drugs" had attacked him Sunday as he left the Kremlin.