Russian Referendum Spurs Ferocious Campaigning

Both sides prepare public for complex ballot on Yeltsin, reform, vote

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin announced yesterday that even if he should lose an April 25 vote of confidence in his rule, he will stay in power until early elections that should take place within a few months, in the fall.

"There should be no vacuum of power during this period," he told reporters at a Kremlin press conference. "Until the elections, the president should go on working."

Mr. Yeltsin said he would resign only if the voters clearly chose his opponents in the parliament, by saying no to early parliamentary elections as well as voting no confidence in the president.

On the other hand, if he wins, Yeltsin vowed to "act more resolutely" toward his conservative opponents. He indicated, for example, that he will ask Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who has clearly taken the side of his foes, to step down.

The vote is less than two weeks away and both sides are mounting ferocious campaigns, making public appearances, firing verbal volleys at each other on a daily basis, and offering promises of a brighter economic future. But it is clear that the main struggle is to transform a very complex four-question ballot into something resembling a clear political choice.

Yeltsin, just returned from a visit to the coal-mining center of the Kuzbass, defines this as a historic choice between continued democratic and market economy reforms and a return to the old communist system.

Yeltsin described the Congress of People's Deputies and the standing Supreme Soviet, the country's bicameral legislature created during the Soviet era, as "Bolshevist" institutions which continue to operate according to the principle of "destroying the other side." Their "recipes" were used in Russia for 70 years, he said, referring to the communist era, and "if we return to that path, that will be the end of Russia."

The Russian leader expressed his confidence that despite the economic travail of the last year, the populace is not prepared to return to the past.

"People quickly get used to freedom, to independence," he said, "they have shorn fear and start to acquire dignity.... Yesterday I was in Kuzbass. People told me that they no longer have to suffer the humiliation as before of standing in long lines at shops with empty shelves, though, of course, prices bite [deeply].... To put a yoke on people again will only be possible by using unlimited, inhuman force, only by unprecedented repression."

In a theme he has repeated many times in recent days, Yeltsin assailed the conservative parliament, where communists and extreme Russian nationalists are in a majority, for blocking popular reforms such as the right to private property. "The old system, which is firmly holding ground in the bureaucracy and the old structures, does not want to let it go, to give property to Russian citizens," he told reporters.

YELTSIN is compelled to acknowledge "mistakes" in the economic policies pursued since early 1992, particularly the massive inflation that has wiped out the savings of the Russian populace. He offers a variety of quick fixes to recompense - from a vague scheme to index and compensate savings accounts to newly promised hikes in stipends for students - along with predictions that a slight slowdown in inflation observed in the last few months is the light at the end of the tunnel.

Parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov charges in turn that economic reform has brought only "chaos" and that the president is out to usurp power from the legislative bodies at both the local and federal level. He predicts that hyperinflation is on the way, dismissing the claims of progress in that battle, as well as the government's attempt to blame parliament's loose spending for much of the inflation.

Mr. Khasbulatov strikes a note that many Russians agree with by charging that the government's privatization policies are only benefiting a handful of insiders. "The enrichment of a handful of new bosses is under way, bosses who are connected with the current political regime," he told local legislators last week.

The challenge of this referendum lies in part in what the president called its "cunning" questions, which make it difficult for the Russian people to "understand what choice they are making, what they are voting for." The referendum, as designed by Yeltsin's opponents in the legislature, asks four questions:

* Do you trust the president?

* Do you support his economic and social policies?

* Do you favor early elections for the president?

* Do you favor early elections for the Supreme Soviet?

The president's senior aides, as well as his most ardent supporters in the democratic movement, are publicly asking voters to answer "yes" to all but the third question. Most of the opposition forces in the parliament are pushing for their formula - "no" to the first two questions, and "yes" to early elections for both president and parliament.

Yeltsin, whose ability to reach the electorate is far keener than the Moscow-based intellectuals among his entourage, is giving voters a simple formula: vote "yes" on all four questions. While this would appear to expose himas well to the risk of an early election, Yeltsin clearly calculates that the positive effect of not confusing an already apathetic electorate outweighs that risk.

The Russian leader also indicated his concern that the voters might be distracted by the trial, which finally began yesterday, of the 12 men accused of plotting the failed hard-line communist coup in August 1991. He told reporters he hoped the trial would be focused only on procedural matters until the referendum is over. Yeltsin who may be called as a witness, declined to comment on the outcome of the trial.

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