RUSSIANS, wearied by constant crisis, are bracing for the final political showdown.
Thousands of chanting pro-Communist demonstrators, many carrying red banners and the old Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag, converged on the Russian White House yesterday, rallied against President Boris Yeltsin's intention to introduce presidential rule. The scene was a reverse image of August 1991, when a crowd of reform-supporters carrying the red, white, and blue Russian flag gathered to defend parliament from putschists intent on reintroducing Communist rule.
Legislative and judicial leaders are fighting Mr. Yeltsin's plans for a winner-take-all referendum to determine Russia's political and economic future, warning that an attempted coup is under way. Parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov denounced Yeltsin's March 20 declaration of "special rule," saying it could lead to civil war. (Yeltsin's prospects, Page 3.)
The standing Russian parliament, or Supreme Soviet, met in emergency session yesterday to formulate its response to Yeltsin's move and his blistering attack on legislative power, made in a nationwide television address Saturday. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, which has backed the president, also called a special Cabinet session yesterday.
Legislators were to discuss yesterday an emergency session of the Congress of People's Deputies envisioned for Wednesday. They also seemed primed to push for the Constitutional Court, the top judicial body in Russia, to rule on the legality of Yeltsin's actions. Constitutional Court chairman Valery Zorkin, in a speech to parliament, said the court would take up the issue. A court ruling against Yeltsin would pave the way for parliament to impeach the president.
Mr. Chernomyrdin, reflecting the deep division in the upper echelons of power, threw his support behind Yeltsin saying, "The president, who was elected by the people, has the right to make such proposals and it is up to specialists to determine whether such proposals are constitutional." In the debate, he called on deputies to remain level-headed. Toward the end of his speech the premier drew hoots from deputies clearly displeased with his position.
Yeltin appeared dangerously isolated when his close aide, Yuri Skokov, head of the powerful Security Council, stood up before the parliament and said that he opposed the president's decree of "special rule." He said that he had sought to dissuade Yeltsin during a series of special meetings held up to Saturday morning and finally wrote a letter stating his disagreement. No Army movements
In Moscow, other small demonstrations occurred both in support of and against Yeltsin on a dreary, gray Sunday. There were no reported movements of military units in the capital, although Yeltsin issued an order turning the Kremlin's military guards, which protect key government offices, into a presidential regiment.
Reaction to the developments in Moscow varied in the Russian Federation's vast regions. Officials in St. Petersburg held a crisis session yesterday. But in other areas - such as the Siberian region of Novosibirsk and the autonomous republic of Karelia, near Finland - officials said they were waiting for events to unfold before making any decisions.
Top officials in parliament and the Constitutional Court already have condemned Yeltsin's moves as unconstitutional. In his TV address, Yeltsin announced plans to eliminate the Congress - the Soviet-era institution that's constitutionally the top body of power - if he wins a planned referendum. Yeltsin announced his intention to proceed with an April 25 referendum on a new constitution, which would be followed with new elections for a thoroughly revamped two-chamber parliament. He insisted that only a po pular vote could end Russia's bitter power struggle between the legislative and executive branches.
"This order will lead to a split of the state and society," Vice President Alexander Rutskoi told Yelstin in a letter in which he refused to go along with plans to hold a vote of confidence in both the president and vice president, also on April 25, the Tass news agency reported.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zorkin, the Constitutional Court chairman, denounced the initiatives as "an attempted coup." And deputy parliament chairman Yuri Voronin warned of a looming presidential "dictatorship."
"You have lost the chance to become the savior of Russia," Mr. Zorkin said in a hastily prepared television response to Yeltsin's earlier address. "You have put yourself outside the Constitution. Come back to it." Parliament suspended
Zorkin and Mr. Voronin appeared with Rutskoi and Prosecutor-General Valentin Stepankov in the television response. They seemed most alarmed by Yeltsin's imposition of "special rule," which essentially suspends the powers of parliament until the April 25 votes.
Defense Minister Pavel Grachev told parliament that the Army wishes to remain neutral and called on both sides to pursue a compromise. The ministers of the interior and security, the other two key law enforcement agencies, also took politically neutral stances and promised to maintain order.
Yeltsin's actions were prompted by developments at the Eighth Congress session, held earlier this month, which greatly reduced executive authority. In his speech, Yeltsin warned that if his initiatives were not carried out, a return of the Communist system would be inevitable.