Saturday's clashes between pro-Communist demonstrators and riot police in Moscow's Gagarin Square shattered what should have been a holiday truce and ignited angry accusations of provocation from both sides of Russia's increasingly polarised political spectrum.
The violence also prompted calls for an emergency meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies, though both Mr Yeltsin's allies and his opponents sent contradictory signals over whether they really want such a session. According to the Interior Ministry, 205 police were injured in pitched battles with demonstrators armed with rocks, wooden poles and steel pipes. Scores of protesters were also hurt.
Mr Yeltsin's supporters called for firm action to halt what they said was a Communist-inspired plot to create disorder. The Russian Democratic Reform Movement issued a statement describing the violence as an attempt by foes of reform to recover the initiative after the previous Sunday's referendum by pushing Russia towards 'strong-arm methods of struggle and civil war'.
Organisers of the march accused Mr Yeltsin of engineering the confrontation as a pretext for imposing emergency rule. Russian Unity, a hardline parliamentary faction, said the clashes had been 'planned in advance and provoked' by the government in an attempt to 'divert attention from the appalling position of the Russian people'.
Several hundred Communist demonstrators gathered yesterday outside the White House, seat of Russia's standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, to wave red flags and scream abuse at Mr Yeltsin and his reform programme. Mr Yeltsin himself was at a dacha outside Moscow but sent word through his spokesman of his 'deep worry and indignation'.
The May Day violence erupted after police stopped protesters from marching into Red Square and then blocked an alternative route towards Moscow University in the Lenin Hills in the south of the city. Police seemed ill-prepared to cope with the confrontation that ensued, and had to call for reinforcements from the Omon anti-riot squad.
The protest was organised by the National Salvation Front, a neo-fascist group Mr Yeltsin has tried to ban, and other small nationalist and Communist organisations. Also present were the former head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other erstwhile Communist officials accused of plotting the 1991 putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev.
In a sign of growing political polarisation, Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of the Congress of People's Deputies and leader of the mainstream conservative opposition, seems to have sided with the extremist fringe in his own response to the rioting. Implicitly rejecting the government's version of events, he ordered a parliamentary investigation into 'the reasons for and the circumstances of the use of force against the participants in a peaceful demonstration'.
Angela Lambert, page 16Reuse content