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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Referendum Trap

Nowhere else in the world could such a tangled situation have arisen as the one surrounding the referendum. The thought behind the referendum, which is still scheduled to take place April 11, is to ask the people how they see Russia - as a presidential or a parliamentary republic. But there is such a fierce battle being waged that it is time to conduct a general poll of the population to find out whether a referendum is needed at all.


Why has this situation arisen? In the first place, the questions which will be placed on the referendum will be formulated only ten days before the decisive day.


And, in the second place, the draft of the questions proposed by the Constitutional Commission provides for 12 points and each of these in turn provokes many more questions. The Communist's newspaper Pravda is correct when it writes: "You need a Doctorate to understand the questions on the referendum - they are not for ordinary people".


For the conservative forces the confusion surrounding the referendum questions is a great opportunity to raise the level of tension in society to new heights. The extreme nationalist newspaper Russky Vestnik is of this opinion: "Why should anyone take part in the referendum? The people will have only ten days to understand the constitution, a document which specialists have been working on for over two years, and still have produced a collection of half-measures".


For Communists, nationalists, chauvinists and fascists the upcoming referendum is a convenient excuse to mount an attack on Boris Yeltsin. As Mikhail Astafyev, one of the deputies of the Russian parliament and one of the leaders of the National Salvation Front, put it: "We are giving speeches for the referendum, but we will work to have it canceled". This surprisingly absurd formula expresses the philosophy of the Front: the more tension there is in society, the easier it will be to topple Yeltsin. The Front is hoping that during the campaigns before and after the referendum it will be possible to make Yeltsin into a political corpse.


Sociologists predict that if the questions on the referendum are formulated in an unclear manner, if they are too abstruse or complex, then the majority of the 106 million voters will simply not show up at the polls. Such an outcome would suit the extreme right and the extreme left, who would see this as a vote of no confidence for President Yeltsin, and would demand his resignation. Astafyev says: "General De Gaulle left power when he lost a referendum vote. We will insist that Yeltsin act in exactly the same way".


Even if the questions on the ballot are formed in a very clear and understandable manner, and the majority of Russians come to the polls on April 11, the referendum is still dangerous for Russia. The proportion of those "for" and "against" will be very close to fifty-fifty, which will lead to sharp confrontation in the society.


Russky Vestnik is already trying to mobilize the population: "They are bothering us with referendums. We have to uproot the present tree of power and plant a new one".


It seems that Yeltsin has fallen into a political trap. Whether or not the referendum takes place, he loses. Yeltsin's team seems to have taken full cognizance of this fact. It is no accident that Sergei Stankevich, political adviser to the president, announced in a recent interview: "This is not the best time for a referendum on controversial political questions".


Yeltsin has attempted to seize the initiative: He made a television address to the people. But the populace has remained deaf to his appeals for them to express their opinion of the conflict between the legislative and executive branches. and Khasbulatov, in turn, has launched a new attack on the president's position. This confrontation has become more and more dangerous.


The situation looks even more tragic since it is clear that political reforms really are needed in Russia. The present power structure has been bequeathed to us by the former Communist regime, and it is crushing the beginnings of democracy. Conditions are right for a Stalinist-type dictatorship to arise.


Nikolai Andreyev, formerly of Izvestia, is the editor of the weekly Moskovsky Obozrevatel.