PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin and his opponents are gearing up for a political battle that could become Russia's post-coup Waterloo, while skirmishing continues within the government over economic reform.
The looming political clash centers on a referendum on a new constitution. Mr. Yeltsin and his foes, including Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, began sparring verbally almost immediately after the Russian legislature late last week fixed April 11 as the date for the referendum.
The president and his allies, hoping to establish their supremacy, want to use the constitutional referendum to shape Russia's future political system by asking voters to determine whether they want the country to be a presidential or parliamentary republic.
The executive and legislative branches have been constantly at odds in recent months. The power struggle threatens to derail reforms and therefore must be resolved, Yeltsin supporters say. The president told supporters that the vote "will be decisive for the fate of Russia," according to the Tass news agency.
"There's no deficit of government power; indeed, there's a surplus," First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko told reporters. "That's why we want the people to decide which [system] of government they favor."
Many legislative leaders, who advocate a parliamentary democracy with a figurehead president, are resisting the proposed vote. They favor a more limited question on the current Constitution. `No need for referendum'
Mr. Khasbulatov, in a Russian television interview Saturday, insisted the Congress of People's Deputies, the country's highest legislature, had already defined the responsibilities of the different branches of government, arguing there was no need to address the matter in the referendum.
The parliament speaker is backed by leaders of the influential Civic Union movement, a centrist political organization with great influence among Russian technocrats and plant managers. With the referendum, the president is trying "to lay claim to absolute power," warned Civic Union leader Nikolai Travkin. Yeltsin's post-referendum agenda includes the dissolution of the Congress, and the holding of new elections on every level - federal, regional, and local.
The first step for the constitutional referendum is the formulation of the question to be put before voters. A joint presidential and parliamentary commission has been created to frame the question, but the work promises to be slow going. Yeltsin already has accused Khasbulatov of stalling in an attempt to foil the president's plans.
"The leaders of the Supreme Soviet [parliament] are scared of the referendum," says presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov.
The desire of Khasbulatov and others to avoid an all-or-nothing vote is understandable because Yeltsin is still the most popular political figure in Russia despite the country's severe economic crisis. "During crunch time - when people are faced with a choice on who they should give power to - the popularity of Yeltsin would surely prevail," Mr. Shumeiko says. Price controls weakened
While the president and parliament wrangle over the referendum, key conservative leaders have decided for now to backtrack on the introduction of sweeping price controls.
Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, in a departure from the market-reform course established by his predecessor, Yegor Gaidar, enacted the price controls Jan. 5. The measure sought to check prices on a wide range of both raw materials and finished products by limiting the profit potential of factories.
At the time, Mr. Chernomyrdin said he was implementing plans drawn up by the previous government, but the move was criticized by holdovers from the Gaidar Cabinet, particularly Privatization Minister Anatoly Chubais.
Shumeiko explained the government's reversal by saying the price-control decree approved by Chernomyrdin was meant to be a rough draft. Boris Fyodorov, deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, announced yesterday that price controls had been drastically scaled back.
The reversal on the price controls signaled that radical reformers still enjoy sufficient influence to resist the government members such as Chernomyrdin who favor a go-slow approach.
Meanwhile, officials have outlined an ambitious plan to broaden privatization to include large-scale state enterprises. Under a pilot program developed by the International Finance Corporation, a unit of the World Bank, shares in 20 enterprises in Volgograd, an industrial city straddling the Volga River, will be offered for public purchase starting Feb. 8.