Brawling MPs halt debate on future of Russia

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The Independent Online
A CRUCIAL session of Russia's Congress of People's Deputies dissolved in chaos yesterday as a brawl broke out at the front of the Great Kremlin Palace and President Boris Yeltsin stormed out in disgust.

After two days of relatively subdued debate, political tension surrounding a meeting that will determine the future of Russia's free-market reforms erupted in a series of abusive speeches and an angry fracas among deputies.

'Protect me from these deputies,' screamed the Congress Speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, as supporters and foes of reform stampeded towards the podium, several of them exchanging blows. President Yeltsin, sitting at a desk behind the Speaker, walked out, followed by Mr Khasbulatov. The session was suspended.

Mr Khasbulatov also found himself embroiled in a second messy dispute yesterday when a 23-year-old journalist alleged she had had an affair with the 50-year- old speaker. 'I love men with grandiose ambitions. They are never boring,' the journalist, Darya Aslavnova, was quoted as saying.

The Speaker, a former professor and one-time loyal supporter of Mr Yeltsin, could be one of the key figures in determining the outcome of the Congress, though yesterday's fracas in the Kremlin seemed to discredit his principal talent - a firm grip over the Congress' more than 1,000 volatile members, 80 per cent them former Communist Party members.

The scuffle followed a dispute over whether to make balloting on a series of constitutional amendments secret. The issue itself was of not great importance but tempers had been rising steadily throughout the day as conservatives savaged the government from the floor and the Acting Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, responded with a combative, sarcastic defence of his policies.

Mr Gaidar, who accused critics of trying to bring back not only central planning but 'labour camps for agents of world imperialism', is expected to be submitted for formal approval as prime minister today.

Tiring of attempts by legislators elected under Communism in 1990 to block reform, President Yeltsin yesterday submitted a resolution that would effectively strip the Congress, Russia's supreme legislature, of its legislative functions. The resolution followed Mr Yeltsin's insistence on Tuesday that he needed a free hand to draft laws on economic issues and fix his own cabinet - both now technically dependent on approval by the Congress or the smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet.

Mr Yeltsin has had to spend months trying to stitch together a deal with a powerful lobby of industrialists and other components of the centrist Civic Union in order to protect his free-market policies and Mr Gaidar, their principal architect. Only by wooing the centre can Mr Yeltsin hold at bay hardliners like Aman Tulyevev, a former Communist from Siberia, who yesterday shouted: 'If you have a drop of dignity and honour left in you, resign along with your bankrupt government . . . Our businessmen can only be compared to the international mafia.' Mr Tulyevev, who stood against Mr Yeltsin for the presidency, added: 'Some people have millions and other people are picking through garbage dumps.'

The same theme dominated a statement published yesterday by Pravda proclaiming the revival of the Communist Party, banned after last year's hardline coup but partially rehabilitated by a court rule on Monday: 'The time for action has come. Communists Unite.'

Though support for the Communists is restricted to a narrow fringe, opposition to reform and Mr Gaidar is widespread. Among deputies it is Mr Gaidar's manner, as much as his policies that rankle. Speaking yesterday in the Great Kremlin Palace, he mocked his most virulent critics, saying: 'I shall not waste your time trying to convince you that the government is not an assembly of agents of international imperialism, foreign spies. Most of you do not believe this and those who do, cannot be convinced otherwise.' But he also appealed for 'common sense' from centrist forces, insisting there was room for 'compromise and flexible co-operation'.

Both hardliners and centrists seemed united in opposing Mr Yeltsin's call for Congress to surrender much of its power in return for a renunciation of his right, now expired, to rule by decree.