Political battle drives wedge in nation 'Vacuum of power' frightening to some RUSSIA IN TURMOIL


MOSCOW -- As demonstrators gathered by the Russian Parliament building yesterday on the banks of the Moscow River, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin got his first set of early returns from the Russian people, who will be asked in a month to break the country's political stalemate.

By midafternoon, two opposing crowds had formed, facing off across barricades reinforced by rows of parked jeeps and buses. One was rallying under a forest of red Soviet flags, symbol of the Communist-nationalist opposition to Yeltsin's government; the other, across the street, was waving the white, red and blue of the Russian tricolor, which has become Mr. Yeltsin's emblem.

The two crowds never met, but the mood on both sides reflected a deep division in Russian society between those loyal to Mr. Yeltsin and his program of economic and political change and those who blame him for the collapse of a system, a country and a way of life that they still hold sacred.

It is too early to tell which way the balloting will go on April 25, the date set by Mr. Yeltsin for a vote of confidence in his leadership and on his proposals for a new constitution. His rating rose slightly in recent public opinion polls -- from 30 percent to 36 percent -- after the recent session of the Congress of People's Deputies, where he received a drubbing at the hands of the majority.

By contrast, his archrival, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, the speaker of the Congress -- whose sarcastic asides and harsh oratory are regarded by many as unseemly -- was given positive ratings by only 12 percent of Muscovites polled by the Independent Institute of Sociology and Parliamentarism.

After Mr. Yeltsin's appeal to the nation and his assumption of virtually unlimited powers Saturday, only a few thousand pro-Yeltsin demonstrators turned out in Moscow yesterday.

The anti-Yeltsin crowd outweighed his supporters in numbers and in vehemence. At one point, a group of jeering Communists attacked an ABC News camera crew, a sign of the anti-Western sentiment that is rising among the opposition.

Milling around the parking lot behind the White House, as the Parliament building is called, a mostly elderly crowd held up an eclectic collection of portraits of Josef V. Stalin, signs mourning the loss of the Soviet Union and banners accusing Mr. Yeltsin of staging a coup and declaring a dictatorship.

One sign, a parody of an old slogan that says V. I. Lenin still lives, captured the demonstrators' contempt for Russia's first elected president. "Yeltsin drinks, drank and will always drink," it read, to the delight of passers-by.

On the other side of the road, among the "democrats" as the old opponents of communism are still called, there was a faint echo of the passions that had collected around the White House in lTC August 1991, when Mr. Yeltsin was leading the resistance to an attempted coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

"We elected him as president, and we will stand by him until the end," Bogdan Titov, 45, an historian, said of Mr. Yeltsin. "What we have now in the country is a vacuum of power, and that is frightening.

"For retired people, with little money, these are difficult times," he said. "Before, people could count on having enough money to pay for their own burial. Now they can't. Those are people who think only about today. Here, we already think in a more modern way. Our world has become wider in these last few years."

For some, Mr. Yeltsin's speech came as a relief, the first resolute step that might finally end many months of political cacophony.

"We need to come to some kind of decision," said Olimpiada Blinova, 54, an engineer. "I think he should have done this a long time ago, and now I am afraid it is too late."

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