Impeach the president! (Not Bill, Boris) President to be impeached. (No, not Bill)

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The Independent Online

THE PRESIDENT is threatened with impeachment. His enemies believe he is guilty of high crimes (not to mention misdemeanours), and want him thrown out of office. They regard him with a venom that at times defies explanation. And he is not Bill Clinton.

THE PRESIDENT is threatened with impeachment. His enemies believe he is guilty of high crimes (not to mention misdemeanours), and want him thrown out of office. They regard him with a venom that at times defies explanation. And he is not Bill Clinton.

Nor is he embroiled in such banal matters as trying to conceal a tawdry love tryst from his McCarthyite political foes. No, these charges involve such issues as destroying an empire, taking up arms against parliament, waging an illegal war and committing genocide against his own people.

Unlike Mr Clinton, the subject of these allegations enjoys almost no support from the general public, many of whom would agree that he is guilty of at least some of these offences, and should certainly leave office. These days very few Russians support Boris Yeltsin. And, for the past six months, a 15-member Russian parliamentary commission has been investigating whether there are grounds to impeach him.

The proceedings could scarcely offer a greater contrast from the Clinton circus. The Moscow media has paid sparse attention, although it has given plenty of coverage to the Washington hearings - partly because Russians see a link between the more aggressive aspects of US foreign policy, such as the Anglo-American bombing of Iraq, and White House efforts to distract attention from the shame of the president; and partly because skewering a leader over an issue like Monicagate causes universal astonishment here.

Mr Yeltsin himself has given the hearings little heed, not even bothering to send a Kremlin representative along to to defend his corner. Nor has the general public, as it battles to weather deep economic depression, shown much interest. Russians tend to confine themselves to wry comparisons between the two beleaguered leaders. Would that the moribund and remote Boris Yeltsin had the energy to chase young women, they remark.

Mr Yeltsin's foes believe that he has committed five impeachable offences: destroying the Soviet Union; using force to destroy the Soviet-era parliament in 1993; illegally waging war in Chechnya - in which tens of thousands died; undermining the armed forces; and presiding over the genocide of Russians - ravaged by poverty, alcoholism and disease, the population has fallen by 2 million since he took office. The commission, convened by the State Duma, or lower house, has already concluded that there are grounds to charge him with the first four. The fifth - genocide - has yet to be decided.

According to the commission's Communist chairman, Vadim Filimonov, the hearings should be completed and the findings sent to the lower house next month. This will mark the beginning of a long process which, if nothing else, illustrates the absence of a separation of powers between the Kremlin, the judiciary and the legislature.

To impeach Mr Yeltsin, his opponents must win a two-thirds majority in the 450-member Duma. The Supreme Court must then agree that the President has committed treachery or a crime against the state. The proceedings would then be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, before going back to the Federation Council (the upper house) for a final decision.

The path is littered with people who owe their jobs to Mr Yeltsin and is so tortuous that, even if the impeachment passed the first hurdle, there is no chance that it could be completed before Mr Yeltsin leaves office next year.

One leading newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, has condemned the proceedings as "a farcical waste of time." Even Mr Filimonov grudgingly admits there is "a grain of truth" to the widely held view that Mr Yeltsin stands no chance of being removed from office. (As for the charges against Mr Clinton, he agrees that they are ludicrous.)

Nor is Mr Filimonov concerned by the fact that three of the Russian president's alleged crimes - breaking up the USSR, shelling parliament and launching the Chechen war - were blazingly public events which happened before Mr Yeltsin was returned to office, with a comfortable majority, by the electorate in 1996. "This is not an obstacle," he says. "At the time of the election these actions had not come under judicial analysis... People could have thought others were to blame."

One thing seems certain: even if everyone knows they cannot impeach Mr Yeltsin, the issue is not going to go away. The proceedings were launched by parliament to defend itself against dissolution by Mr Yeltsin during their battle with him last summer over his choice of prime minister. Now there is a new reason to carry on. There are parliamentary elections in December, and the Communist opposition is unlikely to miss the chance to use the process to trumpet its case, hammering Mr Yeltsin and all those who have worked by his side.