Mr Yeltsin, whose conflict with the legislature has grown increasingly sharp this month, signed a decree that condemned the force as an 'illegal armed formation'. His democratic allies applauded the action as a decisive measure against an organisation so mysterious that its existence was secret until two weeks ago.
The force's duties were confined officially to the protection of high-ranking parliamentarians, but liberal politicians feared that it was rapidly developing into a threat to Russia's fragile democracy. On Tuesday, in an ominous extension of its activities, armed members were deployed outside the offices of the pro-Yeltsin newspaper Izvestia. Journalists said yesterday that the men had withdrawn during the night and been replaced by regular police.
Mr Yeltsin outlawed the unit one day after he banned the National Salvation Front, a new opposition group uniting right-wing nationalists, former Communists and military officers. The Front seeks to throw out Mr Yeltsin and the reformist government.
Mr Yeltsin's two-pronged strike comes when the economy is plunging into a slump, ethnic conflicts are spreading on Russia's borders, and critics are baying for his government's blood. But a dispute soon arose over whether he had the constitutional power to ban the Front and the parliamentary guard. 'Only a court of law has the authority to disband public organisations,' said one Front leader, Ilya Konstantinov.
Russia's Security Ministry, the successor to the KGB, heightened the sense of crisis on Tuesday with a statement warning that 'the dangers inherent in the present situation are compounded by declining living standards, organised crime, corruption, terrorism and inter-ethnic strife'.
The statement marked an unusual intervention into the political arena by an organisation whose leaders were implicated in the failed coup of August 1991 and which has remained largely intact since the Soviet Union's demise.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president, told reporters on Tuesday that reliable sources had informed him that the Security Council, an unelected, five-man body under Mr Yeltsin's chairmanship, had met last weekend to discuss introducing a state of emergency. Mr Yeltsin's press office denied that the council had met, but one minister, Valery Makharadze, suggested that some form of stronger presidential rule was under consideration.Reuse content