Soviets Vote in Unity Showdown : Referendum: Tens of millions decide whether federal state should be preserved. Gorbachev and Yeltsin clash again.


Soviet citizens voted by the tens of millions Sunday in an unprecedented referendum on their country’s future that for many was principally a ballot box showdown between President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his radical rival, Boris N. Yeltsin.

The growing antagonism between the two leaders, increasingly the focus of Soviet politics, was evident as they voted in the Soviet capital.

“This is a struggle of the central government for the preservation of the (old Stalinist) system,” Yeltsin said of the basic plebiscite on retaining a federal system for the country. “I think it is impossible to improve the life of the people while preserving the system.


“We are for destroying the system and creating on a democratic basis a new state and new relations for the maximum independence of the republics.”

Gorbachev, speaking with journalists on the other side of Moscow, angrily denounced Yeltsin’s stance as “destructive and containing nothing useful.”

“If some madman should arise to provoke a breakup of our union, that would be a disaster for this country, for Europeans, for the entire world,” Gorbachev said, clearly referring to Yeltsin.

“What is in question is the fate of our people, the fate of our whole civilization. This is not a matter for someone’s political ambitions.”

Although the referendum results are not legally binding, Gorbachev has made it clear that he considers the vote a barometer of popular support for the new treaty he is seeking to redefine the powers of the central Soviet government and those of the 15 individual republics.

Gorbachev said Sunday that an expression of popular support for his concept of a new federal state would be the first step toward pulling the Soviet Union out of its deepening crisis and would be followed by a union treaty laying a new political foundation for the country and by economic reforms.

An estimated 200 million Soviet citizens from the Baltic Sea to the Bering Strait were eligible to vote, and the official Soviet news agency Tass reported turnouts of 70% to 80% across most of the country.

The formal question on the ballot asked: “Do you think it is necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which human rights and freedom will be fully guaranteed for all nationalities?”

Preliminary results may be available today from some areas, election officials said, but full results will probably not be calculated until late in the week.

Refusing to knuckle under to Gorbachev’s authority and his conception of the proposed union treaty, six of the country’s increasingly fractious republics refused to take part in the referendum. In those republics, army units, factories, trade unions and Communist Party branches were authorized by Moscow to set up polling stations for those wishing to vote.

Scattered violence was reported by Tass in Moldova, where nationalists with police support enforced a boycott of army polling stations, and in strife-torn southern Ossetia, where Georgians tried to prevent voting.

Some republics and regions added questions to the ballot that could significantly undercut the mandate Gorbachev is seeking from the vote. The two most populous and economically potent components of the country--the Russian Federation and the Ukraine--held their own simultaneous plebiscites as a gauge of support for their autonomy from the Kremlin leadership.

Throughout Russia, voters were asked whether they supported the establishment of a popularly elected Russian presidency--a post that Yeltsin, now the chairman of Russia’s legislature, wants created so he can confront Gorbachev from a far greater institutional position of strength.

Ukrainian leaders were also seeking grass-roots support for their policies by asking voters whether they wanted membership in Gorbachev’s federation to be subject to conditions laid down in Ukraine’s own sovereignty declaration passed by legislators there last July.

For countless Russian voters, the fact that at their electoral precinct they were handed two separate ballots--a white sheet asking whether they supported Gorbachev’s “renewed federation” and smaller green slip on the creation of a Russian president--turned the plebiscite into a contest of wills between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, his populist nemesis.

“We voted for Russia and Yeltsin and against the union,” Ivan G. Saviliev, 27, a stonemason, said after he voted with his wife in this ancient Russian city about 155 miles east of Moscow. “We have already lived in a union for 73 years, and it has brought us nothing good.”

But Alexandra Nikolaevna, 85, said, “I said yes to the union so everything in our country can be like it was before.

“This land is what our forebears, our fathers and grandfathers, struggled and died for,” Nikolaevna said after dropping her ballot into the red-trimmed electoral urn positioned in front of a stern-looking bust of V.I. Lenin, founder of the Soviet state.

“As for a president, we already have one (Gorbachev). So why do we need another?”

Other people who voted at Vladimir’s Polling Station No. 75, set up in a parquet-floored drawing room in the Soviet Army Officers Club, said they wanted both Gorbachev’s union and Yeltsin’s presidency.

But most saw the issues as irreconcilable.

“I spent much of the morning going to polling places and I heard people ask one another, ‘Whom did you vote for--Yeltsin or Gorbachev?’ ” said Yuri A. Leontiev, dean of the Vladimir Polytechnic Institute and a local deputy from the pro-Yeltsin Russian Democratic Party. “I heard one woman announce proudly on the street, ‘I voted for Russia!’ ”

Leaders of Vladimir’s 23,000 Communists, who hold about two-thirds of the 125 seats on the Municipal Soviet, or city council, also hope that the referendum will finally settle accounts between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but in the Soviet leader’s favor.

“In the past six years, we must admit that the inconsequential policies of the government, with Gorbachev at its head, have allowed stronger personalities to emerge, namely Boris Nikolayevich (Yeltsin),” said Yevgeny A. Limonov, the Communist Party first secretary, accusing Yeltsin, Moscow’s former Communist Party leader, of having betrayed his convictions.

In turn, Leontiev and other local progressives accused the Communists, acting in cahoots with local government officials, of improper election tactics to torpedo Yeltsin’s cause at the ballot box.

In one alleged maneuver, sample ballots printed in blue ink and of unidentified origin, were distributed to 100,000 Vladimir households by letter carriers who are employees of the Soviet Communications Ministry. Ostensibly impartial, the ballots showed residents only how to vote “yes” to preserving the Soviet federation and “no” to the Russian presidency.

A pair of Ukrainian conscripts from one of the Red Army’s spetsnaz units, the Soviet special forces, said their detachment had recently been lectured by a major general on why soldiers should vote for maintaining the Soviet Union intact. But they said they were ultimately free to cast the ballot they wanted.

“I voted against the union,” said one tow-headed 19-year-old from the Lvov region of the western Ukraine, who gave his name only as Andrei. “Keeping the union means we may have to fight some day to prevent someone from leaving it.”

Vladimir, a heavily industrialized city of 358,000, was the center of one of medieval Russia’s principalities and played a major role in the establishment of the Russian nation-state.

Proud of their city’s illustrious history, many Vladimir residents seemed acutely conscious of the importance of the ballots they were casting Sunday.

“How many disagreements have there already been in our history?” asked Oleg Y. Kurenkov, 31, a long-haired carpenter. “That was why the Tatars could take us under their yoke. I think that only in a union can we find salvation.”

But like several others interviewed at the polling station near Vladimir’s gold-domed Cathedral of the Assumption, a Russian architectural masterpiece from the 12th Century, Kurenkov also voted in favor of Yeltsin’s presidency, seeing no contradiction.

“Russia has been ruled from the center for too long,” Kurenkov explained. “Look at us! We don’t even have our own all-Russian television. Everything is in the hands of the center.”

Times staff writer Michael Parks contributed to this report from Moscow.