Mr Yeltsin's camp retaliated by suggesting that Mr Rutskoi, a highly decorated Afghan War veteran, might be evicted from the Kremlin and forced into more modest offices elsewhere. He has already been stripped of his official Mercedes and most of his duties.
The escalating confrontation between Mr Yeltsin and Mr Rutskoi, running mates in 1991 and allies against the August putsch the same year, shows how political tempers have become frayed before the start on Saturday of a special assembly to draft a new constitution.
Mr Yeltsin, who yesterday said the assembly must finish its work by 16 June, called the conclave in the hope of converting his moral victory in April's national referendum into concrete political gains. He wants to turn Russia into a French-style presidential republic, to do away with the vice-president's post and limit the powers of his other main political rival, the parliamentary Speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov.
Critics say he is trying to make himself a post-Communist tsar. The most vocal of these is his own Vice-President, Mr Rutskoi, whose outburst yesterday marked his most strident attack yet. The current government, Mr Rutskoi said, had impoverished Russia, made 'lies and deceit the norm' and caused more damage to the economy than the Nazi invasion. 'It must be disbanded immediately and a normal government capable of leading the country installed in its place . . . I believe the time for criticism and discussion has run out. What part of reform has become a reality? Absolutely nothing.'
Mr Rutskoi said Mr Yeltsin's policies had left 80 per cent of the population below the poverty line and cut the birth rate, too. 'We must call a spade a spade. This is nothing short of an economic crime against the people.' Such a crime, he said, must be answered before the law.
He described Mr Yeltsin sarcastically as the 'great democrat of our epoch' and questioned the West's motives for supporting him. Recalling how foreign leaders had also cheered Mikhail Gorbachev, he said: 'What was the ultimate result of perestroika? It destroyed a superpower, a nation which the whole world respected, a nation that provided a balance of stability . . . Is there such a counterweight now? No. The state has been destroyed.'
The angry, bitter tone of Mr Rutskoi's speech suggests weakness rather than strength and appears to mark an attempt to stiffen the resolve of an increasingly divided and wavering opposition. One sign of this disarray is the stand of Nikolai Ryabov, one of Mr Khasbulatov's deputies, who has abandoned attacks on Mr Yeltsin in favour of calls for compromise.
Mr Rutskoi and Mr Khasbulatov both seem deeply worried that the April referendum has shifted the political balance in Mr Yeltsin's favour.Reuse content