The Duma said it was freeing the rebels to achieve social reconciliation but supporters of Mr Yeltsin see only confrontation ahead and are concerned that the Russian leader has been seriously weakened.
The President, who failed in a clumsy attempt to stop the amnesty from going through on Saturday, will know better than to take comfort from a statement his old rival, Ruslan Khasbulatov, issued yesterday, saying he intended to retire from political life because it disgusted him. 'I can see no real politicians in the country. I do not see any people at the helm of power with whom it is possible to come to an agreement, people capable of keeping their word. Compared with them, Machiavelli was a child,' the former parliamentary chairman told Interfax. But after he has recovered from his ordeal in Lefortovo prison, which left him looking very pale and drawn, Mr Khasbulatov may allow himself to be persuaded.
Even if he does not, Mr Yeltsin will still have to contend with his former vice-president, Alexander Rutskoi, who let it be known through his spokesman yesterday that his ambition of becoming president was undimmed. 'I am sure that he will not stay outside politics,' said Andrei Fyodorov. 'He came out (of jail) in good, combative mood. But he is not seeking revenge.' Mr Rutskoi, still sporting the beard he grew in prison, was seen in town walking his spaniel but he did not talk to the press.
With presidential elections due by 1996 at the latest, Mr Rutskoi, 47, could pose a real threat to Mr Yeltsin, who at 63 must keep fending off speculation about his health. Although Mr Rutskoi, an Afghanistan war veteran, was captured on television inciting his followers to attack the Ostankino broadcasting centre during last October's rebellion, he may be regarded by Communists and nationalists as a more acceptable leader than the enfant terrible of the new Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has shocked the world with his racist rhetoric and threats to use force against independent states.
Supporters of the freed men chanted: 'Rutskoi, president,' as they emerged from jail. Mr Zhirinovsky, who surged to prominence in the December elections, also turned up outside Lefortovo to tell the crowd: 'Well done, guys. It's our day today]'.
Moscow was peaceful yesterday but Mr Yeltsin must also worry now about other rebels jailed with Mr Khasbulatov and Mr Rutskoi creating disturbances on the streets of the capital. Alexander Barkashov, the leader of a neo-Nazi group whose violence provoked Mr Yeltsin's tank assault on the White House in October, said as he emerged from prison: 'I will be doing whatever I was doing before.' And Viktor Anpilov, an advocate of Cuban-style Communism, who led a riot last May Day, said: 'If I get out and find prices have fallen and people are living better, that means Yeltsin will have been right. Otherwise, I will carry on fighting until the final victory.' Within hours, he seemed to have reached his conclusion. Yesterday afternoon he held a rally attended by a few hundred supporters on the square outside the Bolshoi Theatre.
For all those, at home and abroad, who wish Russia success with reform, there is at best a sinking feeling of deja vu, at worst a foreboding of catastrophe. Yegor Gaidar, the free marketeer recently dropped from the cabinet, fears full- scale civil war may lie ahead. However did Mr Yeltsin get himself into this latest mess?
The answer is that he has been tripped up by the constitution that he designed to give the presidency a permanent advantage over parliament. The text lists scores of matters over which the executive has the final say and gives the legislature only a tiny role. Evidently Mr Yeltsin became embarrassed about all the powers he was cornering for himself and without thinking decided to throw the Duma the sop of being able to declare amnesties. Now they have declared one, there is nothing he can do about it.
His impotence was well illustrated on Saturday when he appealed to the Prosecutor-General, Alexei Kazannik, to suspend the amnesty. Mr Kazannik, a Siberian, is extremely loyal to Mr Yeltsin but he said he could not bend the law and resigned. The President's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, said afterwards Mr Kazannik had acted honourably. So now Mr Yeltsin must learn to live with the rivals he thought he had neutralised in October, as well as the new genie of the far-right let out of the political bottle at the elections. Of course, if the opposition starts destabilising Russia, Mr Yeltsin has the power to call a state of emergency, but he can be even less sure of the support of the army than he was in October. Perhaps the best the President can hope for is that the Communists and nationalists, instead of uniting against him, will start falling out amongst themselves. Since both Mr Rutskoi and Mr Zhirinovsky covet the Kremlin, there is every chance of that happening.Reuse content