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Anti-Yeltsin mood brews in Moscow

THE FEW dozen pro-Yeltsin demonstrators who early yesterday faced a larger Communist crowd, as if presaging the civil war that would be Russia's worst scenario, were gone by mid-morning and the sea of red flags outside the State Duma swelled. Inside, the push to impeach the President moved on relentlessly.

Gennady Seleznyov, the Speaker, predicted a narrow vote to impeach Boris Yeltsin on at least one of five counts today. If the Duma passes at least one impeachment charge, the case goes before the country's top two courts, the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court, before the upper house of parliament takes a final vote on the matter. The country faces constitutional deadlock, however, because if the Duma also votes down Mr Yeltsin's new candidate for prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, three times, then it must be disbanded.

Such constitutional niceties were not preoccupying the highly emotional crowds in the street outside. Wearing old spectacles that I could afford to have smashed, and a coat so shabby that spittle could hardly spoil it, I gingerly penetrated this gathering, as hostile to the West as the Iranian mob that 20 years ago denounced America as the "Great Satan".

An elderly Jew in a beret stood on the edge of the crowd, holding up a sign that listed, as he saw it, the results of Boris Yeltsin's rule: "Collapse, war, chaos, crime, corruption, lies, treachery, sabotage." He did not seem to notice that all around him, people were raising other placards with the Star of David crossed out and cursing the "chief Yid, Boris Eltsman".

In a mild manner, this gentleman, who gave only his first name, Igor, began explaining how he had personally suffered from the bungled Yeltsin reforms. "I was an engineer. I lost my job when our institute was `privatised'. I was close to pension age and after that I could only get odd jobs. My pension now is 400 roubles [US$16) a month. My wife and I live on nothing but porridge, bread and potatoes."

Yelena Sergeyevna, a choir mistress in an emerald green suit, complained that things were so bad that her students at the Conservatory fainted from hunger in class. "Our old people go rooting for food in rubbish bins. We are not looking for luxury. We just want a decent life. But all the money from the West went straight to Chubais [Anatoly, former reforming minister] and Yeltsin's corrupt daughter."

Their dissatisfaction was easy to understand - but were they not afraid of a descent into violence? "Things can't get any worse," Igor began. A young man in a black leather jacket interrupted him, saying: "Revolution is the only way, grandad. The only hope is through blood. We must be ready to die so our children can live. Now we are lower than slaves. At least they feed slaves."

"Yids, yids, it's all the fault of the yids," another man joined in, "and the Yankees, but they're yids anyway. Are you American?"

"No, British." With that, out came all the accumulated anti-Western resentment. A middle-aged woman with a peroxide beehive harangued me for Nato's policy on Yugoslavia. "What gives you the right to think you can bomb innocent civilians? You say you're for human rights and democracy but you're worse than fascists."

Ironic though it may seem, the best chance for stability in Russia may be for the Duma to vote in favour of impeaching Mr Yeltsin, as this process is a safety valve through which pent-up anger can be expressed. If the vote goes against the Kremlin leader, then deputies are more likely to endorse Mr Stepashin. This is because they will have an interest in keeping their seats and seeing the impeachment move further to the courts and the senate. And there, of course, it is likely to fail.

If, on the other hand, the Communists are deprived of their satisfaction, then the confrontation could move on to the streets, as it did in October 1993, when Mr. Yeltsin sent tanks against rebellious deputies in the White House. The only difference is that the ageing President has far less popular support now than he did then.