Members of Boris Yeltsin's government said Thursday they would resign en masse and seek a national vote if the Russian congress, dominated by ex-Communists, tries to curb the president's powers to carry out radical reform.
"If the congress attempts to strip Yeltsin of his powers, I think the president would be forced to appeal directly to the nation," said Vladimir Lysenko, a pro-Yeltsin lawmaker.Yeltsin and his supporters were trying to block what they view as efforts by former Communists in the 1,046-member Congress of People's Deputies to derail the reforms, which are designed to build a market economy.
While Yeltsin is Russia's first freely elected leader, most members of the congress came to office before free balloting existed.
The lawmakers would prefer to win the battle in the congress rather than appealing directly to the people in a costly and unpredictable national vote.
The exact form of the national vote sought by Yeltsin supporters was not clear, said Yeltsin's Foreign Trade Minister, Pyotr Aven.
Voters might be asked to ratify a proposed constitution guaranteeing the president strong powers. Or they might be asked to elect a new legislature to replace the current one, which has been in office since March 1990 and consists mostly of former Communists.
Although it is impossible to predict the outcome of new parliamentary elections, it appeared likely that many former Communists would lose their seats.
The architect of the free market reforms, Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar, warned Wednesday that if parliament took away Yeltsin's powers, his Cabinet would resign. Other Cabinet ministers repeated that warning Thursday.
Yeltin's opponents also want to strip him of the prime minister's post.
The president began a counterattack on Tuesday, saying a reduction in his powers could "plunge the country into chaos."
Former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev threw his support to Yeltsin in an interview published Thursday. He told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) that he agrees a strong presidency is needed during the difficult transition to a market economy.