Gorbachev, Yeltsin Clash in Rival Broadcasts on National Unity Vote : Soviet Union: Sunday’s referendum will ‘pave the way for radical renewal of the union state,’ the president says. But his foe sees it as an endorsement of the status quo.
With a nationwide vote on the Soviet Union’s future two days away, the country’s two most powerful men clashed in rival broadcasts Friday, with Boris N. Yeltsin asserting that approval for President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s “renewed federation” would be an endorsement of the status quo.
“This referendum is being held to win support for the current policies of the country’s leadership,” Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation, said in a radio address. “This policy is aimed at preservation of the imperial, unitary nature of the union and its current political system and allows for only superficial renovation.”
Although he didn’t tell his listeners how to vote Sunday, saying “I think every citizen must decide for himself,” Yeltsin gave the unmistakable impression that he wants people to turn down Gorbachev’s proposal.
“The failure of the referendum will be a signal for the national leadership that the policies it pursues need serious corrections,” said Yeltsin, who last month accused Gorbachev of dictatorial tendencies and demanded his resignation.
Gorbachev had been expected to address the nation tonight, but evidently spurred by Yeltsin’s afternoon appearance on Radio Russia, the Soviet president appeared six hours later on state-run television’s evening news program “Vremya.”
“I call upon you, fellow citizens, to take part in the nationwide referendum and to answer ‘yes’ to its question,” Gorbachev said. “Our ‘yes’ will preserve the unity of a state that is a thousand years old and which has been created through the labor and intelligence, as well as the immense suffering, of many generations.”
In a rebuttal of Yeltsin’s accusations, Gorbachev denied that an affirmative answer in Sunday’s non-binding vote will ensure the “preservation of the old order.” Instead, he said, it will “pave the way for radical renewal of the union state, its transformation into a federation of sovereign republics.”
Pleading for preservation of the Soviet Union within its present boundaries, Gorbachev said: “My firm conviction is that if a deep split occurs in society, there will be no winners. All will be losers. . . . It is even hard to imagine how many troubles and calamities would follow the disintegration of the country. . . .”
For weeks, state-run television and such newspapers as the Communist Party daily Pravda that speak for Soviet officialdom have delivered similarly dire warnings that a “no” vote Sunday would plunge the country into chaos or hamstring Gorbachev’s authority.
In his speech to Russia’s voters, Yeltsin denounced such “propaganda.”
“As before, they frighten us with a civil war, disintegration of the country and bloodshed,” Yeltsin said. “I am convinced there will be no civil war. . . . All of this has no relation to reality. No matter how the referendum ends, the union will not fall apart.”
The referendum is an advisory vote on a proposed new union treaty among the republics that would maintain a strong role for the central government in Moscow, and Yeltsin assured his audience that they could oppose the project without cutting ties that have linked Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians and the other Soviet peoples for centuries.
“I am for the union, but only a union that unites the republics by their voluntary action, and not through coercion,” Yeltsin said. “If the question as formulated by Gorbachev is approved at the polls, won’t there be a temptation to use the results of the referendum to intensify the pressure on the republics?”
He spoke in a special broadcast on his republic’s own radio, which reaches an estimated 90 million of the Russian Federation’s 160 million people, after being denied full air time on state-run Soviet television.
To counter the “colossal concentration” of power in Gorbachev’s hands, Yeltsin called on Russia’s voters to approve his request for a popularly elected presidency in what is the largest and most populous of the Soviet republics. That issue has been included on the Russian ballot.
“If the referendum says yes, then I will run for president (of the Russian Federation),” said Yeltsin, who would almost surely win. But, he said, “the main point is not the identity of the person elected, but the fact that there will be no more top leaders in Russia selected from a narrow group of people.”
Yeltsin was elevated to Russia’s presidency, formally called the “chairmanship of the Supreme Soviet,” or legislature, by members of Parliament last year. Winning a Russia-wide election would be an immense source of legitimacy for the 60-year-old Siberian in his political feud with Gorbachev.
The question to be asked voters on Sunday reads: “Do you consider that the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal and sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedoms of a person of any nationality will be guaranteed in full, is necessary?”