Old guard hero stalks champion of the people: Tony Barber on an epic power struggle between Yeltsin and Khasbulatov

IF ALL THE stories about Ruslan Khasbulatov were true, by now he would either be dead, locked up in prison, or the new leader of Russia.

Take the allegations levelled at the chairman of the Russian parliament last month by Mikhail Poltoranin, one of President Boris Yeltsin's closest political allies and therefore, by definition, an opponent of Mr Khasbulatov. According to Mr Poltoranin, Russia was within a whisker last October of its second putsch in 14 months, and Mr Khasbulatov was the villain of the hour.

Mr Poltoranin charged that armed groups of Chechens (a Muslim nation from the Caucasus in southern Russia) had flown into Moscow to reinforce Mr Khasbulatov's parliamentary guard, a mysterious outfit apparently under the chairman's personal control. Mr Khasbulatov, a Chechen himself, is then said to have commanded the units to seize 75 vital locations, including the Russian Central Bank and the television headquarters. The plot was foiled, so the story goes, by Mr Yeltsin's prompt decision to outlaw the parliamentary guard.

All this may seem rather too swashbuckling an adventure to have been dreamed up by Mr Khasbulatov, a pipe-smoking professor of economics who, in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, once held the post of 'acting chief, sector for co-ordination of research of questions of the scientific-technical revolution'.

But even if he is not guilty of trying to overthrow Mr Yeltsin by unconstitutional means, few doubt that there is much more to the chairman of Russia's parliament than meets the eye. A former Communist youth organiser who left the Party after 25 years in 1991, Ruslan Imranovich Khasbulatov is fighting a struggle with Mr Yeltsin, on the outcome of which Russia's ability to avoid social and political collapse may depend.

On the surface, it is merely a constitutional wrangle, a dispute over which branch of government should be the strongest. Should it be the presidency, as in France, or the legislature, as in Germany, or perhaps a careful balance of both with the judiciary thrown in, as in the United States? Mr Yeltsin stands for a strong executive presidency, and Mr Khasbulatov for a powerful parliament.

But anyone who thinks that, once this contest is settled, Russia will sail into the calm waters of Western-style democratic prosperity, should think again. The real stakes are higher, not least because there are so many actors on Russia's political stage who have no counterparts in the West, above all, former Communists and nomenklatura bureaucrats whose conversion to democratic principles is far from proven. The dispute between Mr Khasbulatov and Mr Yeltsin is only one part of a battle in which a far bigger question is being posed: can Russia become a stable democracy?

Not long ago Mr Khasbulatov, who turned 50 last November and recently published a book called Power, was a Yeltsin ally. The two men stood together at the White House, the Russian parliament building, when the democrats defeated the hardline Communist putsch of August 1991. After Mr Yeltsin gave up the post of chairman of parliament to take the presidency, he supported Mr Khasbulatov as his successor. An era of fruitful co-operation seemed to be in store.

Rapidly, Mr Khasbulatov upset the apple cart. He attacked the liberal economic reforms of the acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, and played a part last December in forcing his resignation. He demanded that Izvestia, Russia's foremost liberal newspaper, be put under parliament's control, and at one point even deployed security forces around the paper's headquarters in Moscow.

He also exploited the confusing procedures of parliament to strengthen his personal powers. While proclaiming himself a democrat, he built a base of support among the conservative ex-Communists who dominate the legislature. For them, and for the military-industrial lobby, Mr Khasbulatov represents a chance to cling on to powers and privileges that would ebb from them in a system purged of its Communist inheritance.

If Mr Khasbulatov's critics are to be believed, his sins go even further. He moved into a lavish apartment in Moscow once occupied by Leonid Brezhnev. He flies around Russia in his own plane. He turned a bodyguard service for top politicians into a 5,000- strong personal militia. He took control of the huge apparatus of the parliament and the old Communist Party Central Committee. He has acquired influence over the appointment of military and intelligence personnel, perhaps with the assistance of one of his most important advisers, Filipp Bobkov, the eminence grise of the former KGB.

So when Mr Yeltsin proposes to curtail the parliament's powers (he broadcast his latest appeal on television last Thursday), he is not merely hoping to expand his presidential authority at the expense of Mr Khasbulatov and the legislature. He is trying to prevent an unholy coalition of anti-reform forces - apparatchiks, industrialists, security officers and others - from sabotaging his efforts to turn Russia into a law-based state.

Mr Yeltsin, banking on his diminished but still considerable popularity with ordinary Russians, would like a referendum in April to settle the constitutional question. If that is unacceptable, he says, let there be a freeze on the existing division of powers until a constitutional assembly is called and drafts a new basic law.

Last Friday, however, Mr Khasbulatov gave short shrift to both ideas. Referring to the proposed referendum, he said: 'The current crisis in the country could turn this into an instrument of confrontation and threaten the integrity of the Russian state.'

Mr Khasbulatov, who once compared Mr Yeltsin's ministers to worms, says it is not he but the President who has authoritarian tendencies. Last October he alleged that he was being bugged and followed. 'I will die a violent death,' he declared.

Chechens know all about violence: Stalin deported their entire nation from the Caucasus in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Mr Khasbulatov, who was born in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 1942, was banished with his family to Kazakhstan.

It is unclear how seriously he expected his prediction of a violent death to be taken. Perhaps it merely reflected the suspicions of an ambitious politician in a country where politicians, ambitious or not, have often died by the bullet, rope and blade. But the longer his battle with Mr Yeltsin goes on, and the more acrimonious it becomes, the harder it will be for Russia's fragile new political system to accommodate them both.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent