A FEW voters were already gathered at the door of Middle School 291 when the polls opened at 7:00 on a balmy Sunday morning in Moscow's Kirov district. By midday, a quarter of the 7,500 registered voters had cast their ballots in a four-question referendum that will determine Russia's political future.
"We are for Boris Yeltsin; there is no alternative," Valera Shestakov and his wife, Marina, declared, explaining their decision to vote "yes" on the first two questions, about their confidence in the Russian president and his reforms; "no" to an early presidential election; and "yes" to early elections for the anti-Yeltsin parliament.
"The first time I voted for [Yeltsin], but he deceived us," said Viktor Abramov, an electrician voting in Kursk, the quiet capital of a rich agricultural region 300 miles south of Moscow. "Yeltsin is selling off everything to America," he said before disappearing behind a red curtain to mark his four paper ballots, one for each question, at a former Young Pioneer Palace.
According to exit polls conducted by US television networks, Yeltsin has won a clear majority of votes for himself, his reforms, and for early parliamentary elections. The results will clearly strengthen the Russian leader in his battle with conservative opponents in the communist-dominated parliament. But even this boost is unlikely to yield any ultimate resolution to the power struggle that has hobbled the country for months.
"The referendum will mark the next stage of political confrontation in Russia," predicted Vice Premier Anatoly Chubais last week. At best, it can lead to new elections for either the president or the parliament or both. Even if Yeltsin wins a mandate with the confidence vote, this does not automatically give him a means of removing his parliamentary opponents, observers say.
Yeltsin's position was already improved last week when the Russian Constitutional Court, overruling the parliament, decided that Yeltsin needs to gain a majority only of those voting to claim victory on the questions about his rule and his reforms. But the court did affirm the parliament's decision that a vote on early elections would require a majority of the entire 105 million-strong electorate, a barrier that will be difficult to overcome unless turnout is very high. Yeltsin seeks mandate
Yeltsin is setting the groundwork, however, for interpreting a simple majority on the confidence question and on early election for parliament as a sufficient mandate to move ahead with a new parliamentary election through approval of a new constitution.
In the week before the election, Yeltsin unveiled a new draft constitution, one combining several existing drafts that would create a strong American-style presidency along with a new two-chamber parliament. The latter would replace the existing Soviet-era two-tier structure of the Congress of People's Deputies, which has supreme authority, and its smaller standing parliament.
In a television address Saturday night, Yeltsin made it clear he would interpret the vote on himself as one for his vision of a Russian state. "Your ballots cast in favor of the president will be seen as the expression of your will to adopt a new constitution," he said.
Yeltsin's next move is to send the draft constitution to the governments of the ethnic republics and the regions that are signatories to the Russian Federation Treaty, a ploy designed to get around the Congress.
Political rival parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov responded in his own Saturday TV appearance by arguing that despite the court decision, the Congress will have to "take into account his demands" regarding a new constitution only if the president gets a majority of the entire electorate. The parliament leader worries that Yeltsin will use the vote to act unilaterally against them.
"Even if 100 percent of the electorate votes for confidence in the president, he has no right to effect constitutional changes one-sidedly," Mr. Khasbulatov told reporters as he cast his vote Sunday morning. He has reportedly made preparations to call an emergency Congress meeting as early as today to counter a post-referendum assault by the president.
At least some of the president's advisers are suggesting that a "yes" vote would be enough to even forcibly dissolve the Congress should it reject a new constitution and new elections. "It cannot be ruled out that he will employ the `enforcement' structures," wrote presidential adviser Andranik Migranian last week, referring to the security and military forces.
"I would be for that because the confrontation between president and parliament won't lead to any good," comments Moscow voter Shestakov, a view shared by many Russians, though by no means all.
Before official results were available, it was already clear on Sunday that despite worries about voter apathy, political interest is running high.
According to official reports, voting across the immense Eurasian landmass of the Russian Federation ranged from moderate to heavy. American television polls reported a turnout of about 70 percent, which is beyond earlier expectations.
In the Russian Far East, where voting was almost complete by midday Moscow time, the turnout was more than 50 percent, ranging up to 68.5 percent in one region. Let them eat cake
Back at school 291 in Moscow, the voting was conducted with the brisk order that has characterized elections going back decades, the only difference being that now, unlike in the Soviet era, voters have a real choice.
The usual buffet table of cakes and sweets was laid out, organized by the local machine tool factory that is responsible for this polling place.
But in a sign of the new times, the factory invited some young entrepreneurs from a private food store to offer their own attractive display of fruits, vegetables, champagne and chocolates. "They are competing to see who will sell more," Yuri Kuzmenov, a factory official overseeing voting here, commented with a smile.