AN angry Russian President Boris Yeltsin struck back yesterday at opponents in the conservative parliament, calling on the people to halt a "crawling coup" aimed at reversing democracy and economic reforms.
In a surprise address to the nation, delivered at the Congress of People's Deputies, a stern-faced President Yeltsin said he would call a referendum to ask the Russian people to choose between his reformist government and a "reactionary" parliament.
"There is only one judge over the Congress and the president - the people," Yeltsin said. "Hence, I believe a nationwide referendum is the only way out of this most profound crisis of power."
By playing this card, which Yeltsin has long held in reserve, the maverick Russian leader has again demonstrated his willingness to take great political risks. Trusting in his ability to mobilize the Russian populace, Yeltsin has put his own future, and that of his reform government, on the line. He obviously concluded after eight days of the stormy Congress that compromise with his opponents was impossible.
The move followed a Congress vote Wednesday to reject reformer and Acting Premier Yegor Gaidar as head of the government. The rejection came despite concessions by the president, including allowing the standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, to review Cabinet appointments.
"The reforms under way in Russia for one year are in grave danger," Yeltsin said.
Yeltsin's hard-line opponents warned that the president's referendum plans would destabilize Russian society, already reeling from economic reform. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev sought to soothe fears of unrest, telling the Congress the Army would not intervene in any battle between the president and parliament.
Meanwhile, some centrist leaders in the supreme legislature welcomed Yeltsin's referendum proposal, saying the Congress had nothing to fear. Nikolai Travkin, a leader of the Civic Union group, said the president is outliving his usefulness.
"The Communist genes of Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] are taking over," Mr. Travkin said, referring to Yeltsin's past as a regional party boss. "Over the last few months ... he's been acting more like a czar than a president."
Travkin said negotiations were needed to form an interim mechanism for governing the country until the referendum, and possible elections, were held. The Constitutional Court, Russia's highest judical body, should serve as an intermediary between the feuding branches of government, court Chairman Valery Zorkin said.
In proposing the referendum, Yeltsin struck at the parliament and its chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, accusing both of rejecting compromise to try to grab power.
"I blame myself now for the unjustifiable concessions that I have made repeatedly for the sake of political concord. This was a waste of time," Yeltsin said.
DESPITE Wednesday's vote to refuse to confirm the prime minister, Yeltsin said the Gaidar government would continue its reforms. Gaidar said Yeltsin's referendum announcement was a surprise, but supported it, calling it a legal "way out of the deadlock."
Yeltsin proposed a referendum for Jan. 24, at which time voters would be asked: "Who do you entrust with taking the country out of the economic and political crisis and reviving the Russian Federation - the Russian Federation President or the present composition of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet?"
According to Yeltsin's proposal, if the populace supports him, elections for a new Congress would be held March 27. If Yeltsin loses, a presidential election would be held on the same date. If neither proposal wins a majority, elections for both parliament and presidency would be held April 10.
Gaidar admitted that a new election may bring conservatives, not reformers, to power. "Yeltsin has taken a very responsible, politically risky step," he said. "He had reason to believe that if he took another course, he wouldn't have the ability to work."
According to Russian law, a referendum can be called by the Congress or as a result of gathering a million signatures. The Yeltsin government immediately embarked on a campaign to mobilize popular support. The president went to a large auto plant in Moscow to rally workers to his cause. Yeltsin received a polite but unenthusiastic reception from workers as he called for calm prior to the possible referendum.
The Congress, however, erupted in turmoil in response to Yeltsin's defiance. Parliament chairman Khasbulatov announced his resignation. Deputies rose to denounce Yeltsin for acting illegally. The Congress had earlier amended the Constitution to bar a referendum leading to dissolution of the parliament.
Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, a frequent critic of the Gaidar reforms, called for a renewed bid to find compromise with Yeltsin.
"If we fail to meet each other half-way, we will push Russia with our hands to a territorial split, to anarchy," Mr. Rutskoi said in a brief speech to the Congress. "Everybody is in favor of reform.... The real question is how reform is being implemented."