Yeltsin may lose vital Duma vote

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S PARLIAMENT will vote today on whether to impeach President Boris Yeltsin in what promises to be a perilously close poll that could mark the start of a prolonged stand-off with the Kremlin.

In a second day of impeachment hearings, the Duma yesterday aired its grievances over the President's eight years in office, which have brought aneconomic depression, rampant corruption, the bombardment of a legislature, and tens of thousands of deaths in a 21-month war.

The lower house's anger has been ratcheted up sharply by Mr Yeltsin's decision to sack the Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, whose acting replacement, Sergei Stepashin, sought to calm the mood yesterday with a broad outline of his strategy.

The former Interior Minister - whose nomination goes before the Duma next week - said he would keep "the backbone" of the last administration, and push ahead with trying to pass through parliament a package of emergency economic measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a condition for Russia's latest $4.5bn (pounds 2.8bn) loan.

The President faces five, legally vague, impeachment articles, all of which are expected to be put to a vote today. These accuse him of causing the break-up of the Soviet Union, using force against parliament in 1993, destroying the Russian military, committing genocide by causing poverty, and engaging in an illegal war in Chechnya.

However, only one - on Chechnya - stands any chance of getting the two- thirds majority needed to pass to the next stage of the process, a ruling by the Supreme Court. Although this would be a largely symbolic victory for parliament, it would anger Mr Yeltsin, laying the ground for a broader battle between the Kremlin and the Duma at a politically unstable time.

Estimates varied yesterday on whether Mr Yeltsin's opponents could cobble together the necessary 300 votes to launch the impeachment, a process that lasts up to three months and which protects the Duma from dissolution while it is active.

The dominant Communist-nationalist alliance (211 seats) and the liberal Yabloko party (46) - which has never forgiven Mr Yeltsin for the war - are certain to vote for the Chechnya charge. The far-right Liberal Democratic Party (49) has vowed to vote against it.

Extraordinarily, its clownish leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has proved Mr Yeltsin's most vocal defender in the past two days, albeit using strange logic. Yesterday he urged the case against impeachment by warning that Nato was about to bomb Russia.

The centrist "Our Home in Russia" (60) has also agreed to vote against it, although some defections are expected. The outcome will depend on how many of them there are, and which way Russia's Regions (45) and the independents (30) - both divided groupings - vote.

If the impeachment fails in the Duma, it will be a humiliating setback for parliament, which yesterday suffered a further snub when 24 out of 29 people - including Mikhail Gorbachev - ignored its invitation to attend the hearings.

The focus will switch to whether the house will confirm Mr Stepashin in office. If the Duma refuses to accept his nomination three times (or that of any other candidates put up by Mr Yeltsin), then the President is required by law to dissolve the chamber.

If the impeachment motion passes, the odds are that it will be thrown out by the Supreme Court. This is because Russia's Constitutional Court has already ruled that Mr Yeltsin's decision to launch a war in Chechnya was not illegal. But these are uncharted territories, and nothing is certain in a country whose legal framework is often untried.

Last night there were signs that the impeachment affair could fall apart. Reports said the chairman of the Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, a Yeltsin ally, will appear before the Duma today to explain that his court cannot rule on impeachment because of a lack of the necessary laws.