In his most dangerous gamble since he mounted a tank in August 1991 to stop the last spasm of Soviet Communism, the 62-year- old president announced on national television that he had signed a decree imposing 'special rule'. Opponents immediately called for his impeachment; the Vice President, Alexander Rutskoi, warned of a bloodbath.
Though Mr Yeltsin ordered the military to stay out of politics, the army may soon have to decide which side it will back in what amounts to a direct confrontation between the Parliament, whose members were elected during the Soviet era, and Mr Yeltsin.
In a national television address, Mr Yeltsin said only decisive action could halt a Bolshevik revival and a renewal of the Cold War. 'Russia cannot survive a second October revolution. That will be a jump into the abyss,' he said, leaning forward as he thundered his defiance at the camera. 'I have resolved on decisive action; we have to put an end to this turmoil.' A national vote of confidence in his presidency would take place on 25 April.
The chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, accused Mr Yeltsin of an 'attempted coup d'etat'. The most dangerous challenge, though, came from Vice President Rutskoi; his record as an Afghan war hero and his close contacts with the military have made him a possible leader-in-waiting.
Mr Rutskoi warned of 'total destabilisation' and said he had urged Mr Yeltsin twice not to seize special powers.
Mimicking Mr Yeltsin's own tactics during the 1991 coup attempt, parliamentary leaders gathered last night at the White House, seat of Russia's standing parliament, and called an emergency legislative session for later today. But Mr Yeltsin insisted that the putsch belonged to his enemies and accused them of using a tumultuous session of the Congress of People's Deputies last week to 'start the engine of an anti-constitutional coup'.
Having assured the West he would stay within the constitution, he stopped short of suspending either the Congress of People's Deputies or the Supreme Soviet. But the 'special regime of government' declared last night strips legislators of any right to defy his will. Without military and security force backing Mr Yeltsin may not be able to prevent local officials from sabotaging his planned vote of confidence.
Aside from calling a referendum, a move outlawed by Congress last week, Mr Yeltsin also suggested that he was taking control of the Central Bank and said he had sacked regional leaders in Irkutsk and Novosibirsk. A separate decree is being prepared, he said, to begin privatisation of land.
Mr Yeltsin's speech, pre-recorded but kept secret from some of his aides, was made while the speaker of the congress and his main opponent, Ruslan Khasbulatov, was away from Moscow.
'In Russia we have in effect two governments . . . this is the road to chaos and Russia's death,' he said, sitting behind a desk with a Russian flag to his left. If he wins next month's referendum, Mr Yeltsin said, the Congress that has defied him and is due to meet again in June would cease to exist.Reuse content