Yeltsin to rule by decree -- pending vote President declares April referendum on his authority

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MOSCOW -- Calling on the people of Russia to support him a a dangerous moment in their history, President Boris N. Yeltsin ,, said last night that he was assuming temporary emergency powers to block the restoration of "Bolshevik rule" by the Russian legislature.

He proclaimed a referendum, to be held April 25, so that Russians can either ratify or reject his authority.

In his address, Mr. Yeltsin said he had signed decrees blocking the legislature from interfering in the April 25 referendum -- or with any other decree that he might issue.

The president said he was taking unparalleled actions so as to head off a descent into anarchy brought on by his Communist foes in the legislative leadership.

But his appeal prompted immediate sharp condemnation from some of his chief opponents, who said he was threatening to split the country.

Some legislators called for Mr. Yeltsin's impeachment, and leaders of the parliament scheduled a special session for today to consider the president's move.

Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi said criminal charges should be brought against the people who advised Mr. Yeltsin to take such a course.

And the Constitutional Court, which met yesterday to consider the president's actions, branded them as "an attempt at a coup."

Yesterday, in Washington, the White House said President Clinton planned to go ahead with his April 3-4 summit with Mr. Yeltsin in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In a statement read by the chief White House spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Clinton said Mr. Yeltsin was the leader of the transformation of Russia to democracy and a market economy and, as such, deserved Western support.

"He has our support as to his reform government," the president said. "President Yeltsin is working to break the impasse in Russia. We were encouraged to hear him say that civil liberties will be respected. We will work hard to maintain relations."

The evening's events pushed Russia into what promises to be the irrevocable, final showdown between the reform-minded Mr. Yeltsin and his entrenched enemies in the legislature.

For the past year they have jockeyed for power, and in the past two weeks Mr. Yeltsin has gotten much the worse of it. Fearing that his whole economic program would be crushed by what he sees as an illegitimate, undemocratic parliament, he decided he had no choice but to move swiftly and decisively.

The scope of his actions was far more sweeping than most here had expected, but Mr. Yeltsin carefully called on the army to stay out of politics. That was a gesture that seemed aimed more at Russian and world popular opinion than at his generals, but it helps him to fend off accusations that he wants to be a dictator.

Like the man who climbed atop a tank and appealed to the country to stand up against the attempted coup of 1991, Mr. Yeltsin was intent last night on rallying the people against a Soviet-era legislature -- a 1,000-member Congress of People's Deputies and a smaller, day-to-day parliament known as the Supreme Soviet -- that are dominated by old-guard Communists.

"We have to keep the old nomenklatura [the Communist Party elite] from getting back into their seats," he said, then, referring to the Communist takeover in 1917, he added, "Russia cannot stand another October Revolution."

The 62-year-old president's tone was urgent. Unlike other recent appearances, when he has appeared to be either a growling bully or a somewhat distracted, beaten man, last night's televised address showed a serious, sober leader who methodically went through his bill of indictment against his opponents.

He spoke, though, with his back to the wall.

At a four-day session this month, the Russian Congress had voted to kill the idea of a referendum, had blocked the president's ability to issue decrees and had made known its plans to take more powers from Mr. Yeltsin at its next meeting in June.

In turning to the people for support -- as he did in August 1991 and in June 1991, when he was elected president -- Mr. Yeltsin reminded viewers last night that he alone of the country's politicians had been willing to submit to the popular will.

No Communist leader ever did, including Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and Mr. Yeltsin described the Russian Congress as "cowardly" for refusing earlier this month to consider his proposal for new elections.

The leaders of the standing parliament, or Supreme Soviet, huddled last night and issued their own appeal to the people -- although the chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, was away on a visit to Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Nikolai Ryabov, who read the appeal at a news conference, condemned the president's "adventurist course."

Appearing with him and other parliamentary leaders was Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court. Mr. Zorkin, who has sided openly with the parliament in recent weeks, said he had tried all week to talk to Mr. Yeltsin but had been refused.

He said he sent the president a letter asking him to rescind the decree.

"Boris Nikolaevich," Mr. Zorkin declared last night, using the Russian form of address for Mr. Yeltsin, "you have lost the last chance to be the savior of Russia."

Mr. Yeltsin said the referendum would allow voters to choose a new constitution, which would abolish the Congress and set new elections. He said it would also carry a question on the privatization of land.

The question on land ownership could be key to the referendum's success. It is an extremely popular issue here -- except in the Supreme Soviet.

By last winter, advocates of land ownership had already gathered the 2 million signatures needed to hold such a referendum, but the parliament has refused to consider the petitions.

By tying his future to the question, Mr. Yeltsin is trying to exploit one of the most easily understood and emotional issues here -- and to use it as a club against his foes.

"The Congress is destroying the state," Mr. Yeltsin said, "trying to prevent the president from giving land to the people and saving Russia."

From the start last night, the president cast his opponents as Communists who sought to restore their power and privileges. He called the recent session of the Congress a "dress rehearsal" for their real attempt to seize power. He accused them of engaging in "constant lies when they swear their loyalty to democracy."

"The tragic result of the Congress," he said, "is that Russia has become weaker" and that the leaders of the parliament have started down the road to anti-constitutional rule.

"The Congress is not the state," he said. "It's not Russia. Under such conditions, the president is forced to assume responsibility for the country."

Mr. Yeltsin's move is a bold one. He is gambling that he can swing the country behind him before his foes can organize any kind of political resistance.

Clearly, the main weapon in his attack is his determination to paint the legislature as a discredited body, one that was elected in 1990 in a vote stacked to favor Communists and that has consistently resisted and sabotaged free-market reforms.

Referring to his election as Russian president in June 1991, he said, "You entrusted me to rule the state of the Russian Federation."

He called that vote a "choice to undertake deep reform on the road to progress, which the whole human race is following."

But the legislature has damaged that reform by refusing to consider private land ownership and by controlling a central bank that has issued trillions of rubles and thereby sent inflation soaring, he said.

"I was not elected by the Congress, or the Supreme Soviet, but by the people," he said. "So the people have to decide."

But before they have a chance to decide, Mr. Yeltsin said he will be issuing a whole series of decrees.

He said human rights would be protected. To block a parliamentary attempt to seize key broadcast and print organizations, he said, "I assume responsibilities for protecting the media."

Other decrees, he said, will introduce vouchers for land privatization; guarantee that all forms of privatization are irreversible; support small businesses with credits and tax breaks; organize public works projects, especially in housing and railroads, to prevent unemployment; stabilize the ruble by sharply tightening the money supply; crack down on the abuses of privilege by state enterprises; and establish new guarantees for the ethnic republics and other special districts within Russia.

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