Russia In Crisis: Duma condemns 'unstable' Yeltsin

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The Independent Online

BORIS YELTSIN'S darkest hours in office were spelt out to a hostile Russian parliament yesterday as it seethed with fury over his latest challenge - the firing of the popular Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

BORIS YELTSIN'S darkest hours in office were spelt out to a hostile Russian parliament yesterday as it seethed with fury over his latest challenge - the firing of the popular Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

A defiant State Duma launched into a debate on whether to begin impeachment proceedings against Russia's first post-Soviet President, a man once seen by Russians as a hero who fought against a repressive system but who is now widely viewed as an unstable, power-addicted tsar. Fourteen months from the end of his second, and almost certainly final term, an ill and isolated Mr Yeltsin faces five possible articles ofimpeachment, which were outlined yesterday to the lower house by one of his most determined foes, Vadim Filimonov.

Mr Filimonov, chairman of a parliamentary impeachment commission and a Communist, was warmly applauded as he outlined the case tothe chamber, accusing the President of treason and worse. Mr Yeltsin was guilty of murder by using tanks to bombard a previous legislature in 1993, he said, and had caused such suffering with failed market economics that it amounted to genocide. He also destroyed the Soviet Union, enabling Nato to dominate the world. "It was exactly because of the collapse of the USSR that Nato was able to advance to our borders and bomb Iraq and Yugoslavia," said Mr Filimonov.

On the street, several hundred banner-brandishing protesters gathered to vent their anger before the TV cameras at their leader's latest act. "Impeachment! Impeachment!" they chanted.

If Mr Yeltsin had hoped to distract attention from, or even derail, this painful episode by firing the Primakov government on the eve of the debate, then he will have been sorely disappointed. A week ago these proceedings would have been dismissed by all but Moscow's Kremlin-obsessed chattering classes as a symbolic protest doomed to failure. Although that assessment almost certainly still holds true, yesterday the eyes of the world were on the hearings, producing one of the bleaker moments of Mr Yeltsin's rule.

All day they led the Russian news, becoming a sounding board for the anger and frustration over Mr Yeltsin's latest power play; Mr Primakov was rare among Russia's leaders in that he was genuinely popular, not least because his eight months in office brought some vestige of stability. That has now been jeopardised by Mr Yeltsin and, with it, billions of dollars in international loans and Russia's chances of being an effective mediator in Kosovo.

The row over the firing of the government stiffened the Duma's determination to speed up the debate.There was talk yesterday of bringing forward the impeachment vote from tomorrow to today. The President's conduct also increased the likelihood that one article will proceed - that of illegally launching the war in Chechnya in 1994 in which tens of thousands died.

Mr Yeltsin tried to put up a fight by dispatching an envoy, Alexander Kotenkov, to mount his defence. The charges were "groundless", he said. But his was always going to be a lone voice in the 450-member chamber in which the Communists - Mr Yeltsin's sworn foes - are the largest faction.

Underlying the impeachment hearings against Mr Yeltsin is a more urgent conflict between the Kremlin and parliament, which centres on the confirmation of Mr Yeltsin's new choice of Prime Minister, Sergei Stepashin. Angered by the loss of Mr Primakov, who had built a consensus with parliament, the Duma is in no mood to approve this Kremlin loyalist, whose chief political advantage to the Kremlin is that he was Interior Minister - head of Russia's vast police force.

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