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Yeltsin Vows to Go Ahead With Russian Referendum If Legislature Deal Fails

AFTER taking tentative steps to reach a compromise on ending Russia's political crisis, the nation's executive and legislative leaders have returned to their trenches to continue the struggle for power.

Efforts to agree on a quick constitutional deal to end the political stalemate in Moscow appeared to run out of steam over the weekend, amid volleys of mutual recriminations over the deadlock.

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President Boris Yeltsin and his supporters - anxious to achieve a breakthrough - say that if no agreement with the legislature and its speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, can be worked out, then they will proceed with the planned April 11 referendum, designed to approve a new constitution.

A new constitution, the president's team hopes, would clearly define the responsibilities of each branch of government and facilitate the continuation of economic reform. But with opposition mounting against a plebiscite, the presidential team also is preparing for alternatives, including early elections.

"All of us are fed up with tension and confrontation," Mr. Yeltsin said in a televised speech Feb. 18. "We have too much to do to waste time and effort on fruitless battles with each other."

During the television address, Mr. Yeltsin offered a constitutional deal. Under his plan, both the executive and legislative branches would make "binding" pledges not to overstep their current constitutional authority.

The executive also would gain authority over the Central Bank, which is now under parliamentary control. Government officials have accused the bank of undermining attempts to reintroduce tight fiscal policies. In addition, a constitutional convention would be convened to draw up a new legal framework to replace the Communist Constitution of 1977.

Mr. Khasbulatov greeted Yeltsin's proposals frostily. He labeled the power-sharing agreement as "mediocre," and called the president's allegation that the Congress of People's Deputies was incapable of adopting a new constitution a "primitive conclusion."

"The Congress of People's Deputies is the highest organ of power [in Russia] - and no one else," Khasbulatov said, indicating he would resist a constitutional convention.

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Khasbulatov has yet to offer any concrete proposals for breaking the impasse. But in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where he was attending a meeting of regional leaders, Khasbulatov suggested the president's powers should be curtailed. The speaker also advocates early presidential and parliamentary elections in the spring of 1994.

Several prominent legislative leaders, including Constitutional Commission chairman Oleg Rumyantsev, have echoed Khasbulatov's opposition to the Yeltsin power-sharing deal. Thus, it was not surprising that presidential and parliamentary delegations failed to make headway on a deal during talks Feb. 20.

Although Yeltsin and others still talk about the April referendum, it appears that the executive branch, as well as the legislative, wants to avoid such a vote.

Khasbulatov, in an opinion shared by many regional political leaders, insists a referendum would be destabilizing, possibly prompting the disintegration of the Russian Federation.

Opposition to the referendum is widespread in Russia's regions and autonomous republics. And Yeltsin, along with his supporters, now seems to realize he would have virtually no chance of winning a vote if it is held. "In my view, the decision to cancel the referendum has been predetermined," said Nikolai Ryabov, Khasbulatov's chief representative at the Feb. 20 constitutional meeting.

New battle lines are now being drawn around early elections. Although he says he favors early elections, Yeltsin rejects Khasbulatov's plan for both presidential and parliamentary votes in early 1994.

Yeltsin wants the current terms of both president and parliament to be shortened by one year, meaning the legislative elections would go ahead in 1994, while the presidential vote would occur in 1995. Such an arrangement, he adds, would help ensure stability during the transition.

While a time frame for new elections has not been fixed, some prominent politicians, including former President Mikhail Gorbachev, say a new vote is the only way out of the constitutional crisis.

"Politics is becoming openly cynical, above all, regarding the people," Mr. Gorbachev wrote in the Moscow News weekly. "Time now is measured in months if not weeks."

"Elections - having opened the way for new forces into the structures of power, forces which have not lost the people's trust - will help overcome the present gap between the power structure and society," Gorbachev continued, "thereby preventing the development of a socio-economic crisis into an open civil conflict."

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