MOSCOW -- An angry and diminished Boris N. Yeltsin walked out on the seethingly hostile Congress of People's Deputies yesterday after opponents bested him in a key battle that promises to shape the future of their struggle for power.
The Congress broke a precarious compromise in effect since December and voted to give the standing parliament new power to block Mr. Yeltsin's painful reform initiatives.
The vote seemed to climax Russia's most serious political crisis since the 1991 coup in which die-hard Communists tried to overthrow Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, ultimately undoing themselves and the union. But in fact yesterday's events merely set the stage for a period of even more intense, and possibly dangerous, political clashes.
"The smooth reformist period has ended," said one of the president's top aides, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai. "The Congress hasled the country to the threshold beyond which lies the path to revolution, street rule and chaos."
Mr. Yeltsin picked up his rallying cry from last December and called yesterday for an immediate referendum so that the Russian people could choose between him and the legislature.
A second question would seek to enshrine the principle of private land ownership.
"I have done everything possible to reach an accord, proposed a number of versions for compromise, listened to opinions, though in many cases they took foul and sometimes insulting forms," Mr. Yeltsin said in a speech as lawmakers listened uneasily.
"There's only an extremely limited choice of ways left to maintain the stability of the situation," he said.
Mr. Yeltsin's aides said later they would like to hold the referendum April 25.
"A referendum is a sharp weapon, but it's one of only two legal courses," Mr. Shakhrai said. The other, he said, would be to hold early elections, sometime within the next year, for both president and parliament.
After a day of wrangling that included Mr. Yeltsin meeting privately with some of his chief opponents while legislators milled around the smoking rooms and lobbies of the chandeliered Kremlin Palace, the deputies did agree to consider Mr. Yeltsin's revived proposal for a referendum on who should rule Russia. They extended their emergency session to today.
Presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov said the 62-year-old Mr. Yeltsin would not return to Congress:
"Yeltsin . . . left the Congress because he understands he has only one partner left with whom he can talk. That is the people."
But a spokesman for parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, Mr. Yeltsin's main rival, scoffed at the president's walkout.
"An American president's proposals are not always supported by Congress," Konstantin Zlobin told Reuters. "That doesn't mean he has to stamp his foot and leave Capitol Hill."
The referendum to be discussed today could entail large risks. A referendum, if held, might attract such a small turnout as to be worthless to the president. Or Mr. Yeltsin might lose outright.
Many people here fear that a referendum campaign would serve not to bring the country together but help split it apart even further, potentially disintegrating the Russian federation.
"Yeltsin is trying to scare the Congress into taking extreme measures," said Viktor Aksyuchits, a Russian nationalist opponent of the president who is strongly opposed to a referendum. "But he will not succeed."
Extreme measures could also come from the president's office. Yet again yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin said he might be forced to consider unnamed "additional steps," and deputies wondered if that meant his trying to impose direct rule, with help if need be from the army.
A truck full of soldiers entering the Kremlin grounds -- an everyday sight here -- led a few jittery hard-liners to angrily demand whether a military takeover was in process.
(By nightfall, with the deputies safely ensconced in their hotel rooms, there seemed to be no one in charge of the Kremlin but a handful of policemen.)
Mr. Shakhrai categorically ruled out any attempt to institute direct presidential rule. "No actions disbanding legislative bodies, either in the center or locally, will happen," he said.
Mr. Shakhrai also said that Mr. Yeltsin and his allies will not encourage demonstrations or protest rallies against the Congress.
But what happened yesterday left the president in a seriously weakened position. The Congress was supposed to have met this week to decide on holding a referendum on a new constitution -- but from the opening session Wednesday hard-line opponents of Mr. Yeltsin and his economic reform program have had their sights set on him instead.
They easily carried a vote yesterday to throw out the December compromise and reinstate three constitutional amendments that have been on hold for the past 3 1/2 months. Those amendments require parliamentary approval of key Cabinet appointments and enable the parliament to challenge -- and at least temporarily block -- presidential decrees.
They are measures that, once exercised, could lead to a steady erosion of Mr. Yeltsin's authority.
Deputies point out that legislatures around the world typically have such powers. The president's allies counter that the Congress is unlike most legislatures because it was elected, in 1990, under the old communist regime.
Indeed, this session of the Congress has been a triumph for the leaders of the hard-line opposition, who came to it with a program and with a fair degree of organization. Little has been heard of the centrist Civic Union bloc, which seemed so crucial in December because of its size and presumed clout but which never cohered around a central, rallying theme.
But while men like Mr. Aksyuchits and Sergei Baburin lead the verbal charge on Mr. Yeltsin -- demanding yesterday, for instance, that Russian broadcasting and news services be turned over to parliamentary control -- quieter currents are still flowing through the Kremlin.
Mr. Khasbulatov, a man who has blisteringly attacked Mr. Yeltsin but who seems to have no particular ideological drives, met behind closed doors late yesterday with the president and the chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin.
Mr. Khasbulatov also met privately with Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, who is not an ally of Mr. Yeltsin and has been keeping very quiet so far.
It was after these meetings that Mr. Khasbulatov announced the Congress would not conclude its work but reconvene today. He said the legislature needs to keep working so as to check any unconstitutional moves by Mr. Yeltsin -- but a more likely explanation is that Mr. Khasbulatov believes some sort of deal to keep things from flying apart is still possible.