Meeting in emergency session in the White House, scene of Mr Yeltsin's defiant stand against a hardline putsch in August 1991, the conservative-dominated Supreme Soviet took the first step towards impeachment. But it backed away from endorsing calls for Mr Yeltsin's immediate dismissal and the arrest of his advisers.
The real battle over Mr Yeltsin's future, which could hinge on the military, lies ahead. 'The army has maintained stability so far but the situation remains heated,' the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, told legislators yesterday. 'A split in the army would end in bloodshed.'
Late last night the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, went on television to appeal for an end to the crisis, which he said was leading Russia toward chaos and anarchy. 'Our difficult economic situation is acutely aggravated by political crisis and confrontation, which have reached the boiling point.' Unless the tension and instability were ended, 'it will become impossible to check the slide toward economic ruin, chaos and anarchy', he said.
Lined up against Mr Yeltsin after his declaration of 'special rule' on Saturday night are his Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi; the head of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin; the parliamentary leader Ruslan Khasbulatov, who rushed back to Moscow from Kazakhstan, and all big political groups apart from small radical democratic parties.
'The confrontation will persist so long as the current system of power is maintained with . . . such people,' said Mr Khasbulatov, angry at having drawn blood rather than killed Mr Yeltsin's plans for five weeks of 'special rule' until a referendum can be held.
Joining a chorus of condemnation, the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev said his successor in the Kremlin had 'set the house on fire to make omelettes'. In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, the former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said: 'Russia now faces the danger of civil war. That is a feeling I have. More than that, I can almost smell it.'
Mr Yeltsin imposed what amounts to presidential rule to stave off what he says is the threat of anarchy, Communist rule and a return to the Cold War. His ministers, to varying degrees, have stayed loyal. Andrei Kozyrev, the Foreign Minister, dismissed opponents as Lilliputians.
But in an indication of how volatile the mood in Moscow has become, the Security Ministry issued firearms to ministers, and Mr Yeltsin reorganised his Kremlin guard.
Several thousand protesters, half of them shouting 'Lenin, Lenin', the rest 'Yeltsin, Yeltsin' gathered outside the White House on the banks of the Moscow River, kept apart by police barricades.
Adding to Mr Yeltsin's woes was the death, reported on television last night, of his 85-year-old mother.
The next move is up to Russia's Constitutional Court. A resolution passed by the Supreme Soviet yesterday orders the court to judge the legality of Mr Yeltsin's decision to rule by decree and by-pass parliament until a vote of confidence can be held on 25 April on his presidency along with a separate poll on a new constitution.
But, to the anger of Mr Yeltsin's most pugnacious foes, the legislature stopped short of calling an immediate session of the one body empowered to remove the president from office: the Congress of People's Deputies.
As during the first day of the 1991 putsch, which put Mr Yeltsin in the Kremlin, many leaders in Moscow and the provinces sat on the fence. The key factor in deciding how they will jump will be Russia's military, and the post-Communist incarnation of the KGB, the Ministry of Security.
The first wave of attacks is perhaps over. But this may mark the beginning of the most dangerous phase. The tentative support of the military could easily dissolve, and Mr Yeltsin will have trouble convincing regional leaders to organise his referendum. If this fails to give him a ringing mandate, supporters say he will resign.
The US backed Mr Yeltsin. 'As Russia's only democratically elected national leader, he has our support, as does his reform government and all reformers throughout Russia,' a statement from President Bill Clinton said. British ministers refused to comment. Sources said there was ' nothing to talk about' beyond a low-key Foreign Office statement welcoming Russia's 'continued commitment to democracy and civil rights'.
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