Yeltsin survives to fight another day: Hardliners lose impeachment vote but seize control of TV in day of drama that leaves Russian crisis unresolved

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The Independent Online
AMID DEAFENING CHANTS of 'Russia, Russia', President Boris Yeltsin last night declared victory on the edge of Red Square after a vote in parliament to impeach him failed. 'The Communist coup d'etat did not take place,' he proclaimed.

But while hardliners in the Congress of People's Deputies were unable to unseat Mr Yeltsin, they firmly rebuffed yet another compromise to end Russia's explosive power struggle and showed their strength by seizing control of national radio and television. The vote left the country's political crisis unresolved after a dramatic day of rejected compromise and huge street rallies.

After an uproarious session in the Great Kremlin Palace, the battle seemed no closer to final resolution, with no obvious way out of the crisis in sight. 'This is a victory for the people, for reform, for democracy. Young Russia has won and will continue progressing,' Mr Yeltsin said, punching the air triumphantly.

Before the vote Mr Yeltsin, in a brief appearance outside the Kremlin, insisted that he would press ahead with his referendum on 25 April, no matter what Congress decided. 'I appeal to the people,' he told the crowd, the biggest since the aftermath of the coup in August 1991. 'I will obey only the will of the people,' he said, punching the air with his fist beneath the walls of St Basil's Cathedral.

Near by, up to 20,000 nationalist and Communist protesters urged his dismissal. Rallies in support of the President and smaller demonstrations opposing him were held in at least 60 cities in Russia.

The second attempt to impeach the President in successive days fell short of the required two-thirds majority by 82 votes at an emergency session of the Congress of People's Deputies. However, another attempt to remove him from office cannot be ruled out. On Saturday, hardliners failed to put the impeachment motion on the agenda. Congress was convened to sanction Mr Yeltsin's plan to hold the referendum on the balance of power in Russia on 25 April, and to rule by decree in the interim.

A day of high drama at the Kremlin began with a surprise announcement that Mr Yeltsin and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Chairman of Parliament who had called for the President's impeachment, had agreed to a compromise. Under this back-room deal, mistakenly presented to Congress as a fait accompli, both Mr Yeltsin and Mr Khasbulatov would have resigned, clearing the way for presidential and legislative elections to a new bi-cameral parliament in November.

Fearing the end of their political careers, the deputies, elected under a system designed and funded by the Communist Party, threw out the compromise, plunging Russia yet again into a state of confusion. At the same time they tabled motions of impeachment against Mr Yeltsin and, unexpectedly, against Mr Khasbulatov.

Mr Khasbulatov has been the leading opponent of Mr Yeltsin's policies, using the legislature to inflict a series of humiliating defeats on the President. But yesterday he found himself on the same side and he, too, survived the vote by a comfortable margin.

After the vote was announced, the Congress adjourned until today. Mr Khasbulatov thanked the MPs for their support, and said the voting signalled the need for a change in Mr Yeltsin's economic reforms.

'When an enormous number of deputies . . . almost remove the President from office, we all have to think about this signal very seriously,' he said. 'It is a serious national problem which we cannot ignore.' He added that the Congress must continue to push for changes in economic policy that would give 'real relief' to the Russian people.

Mr Yeltsin did not fare so well with parliament's other efforts to curb his powers. Seeking to resolve a month-long wrangle over who should be in charge of national radio and television, Congress at one stroke removed them from the President's control and placed them under its own. The decree, entitled with a touch of irony Measures to Ensure the Freedom of Speech on State Television and Radio and in Information Services, will be referred by Mr Yeltsin to the Constitutional Court later today. That body is already at loggerheads with Mr Yeltsin, having declared his intention to rule by decree unconstitutional.

The attempt by the Communist-dominated Congress to seize national broadcasting media was also condemned by journalists as a step taking Russia back to the bad old days. 'Now we have returned to what should not be allowed to occur,' Oleg Poptsov, Head of Russian Television and Radio, told Interfax.

The battle for the media is likely to be the next flashpoint in the virtual civil war between the President and his foes. Even if the Congress decree is endorsed by the Constitutional Court, the legislature may find itself physically unable to gain control. Mr Yeltsin ringed the most important buildings with police cordons, and there may be confrontation if Congress, which has no forces of its own, tries to take them.

In many ways, the struggle is back to square one, with Mr Yeltsin continuing to rule by decree and Congress opposing his every move. If Mr Yeltsin manages to organise the referendum, and if he wins an endorsement, the legislature will have lost most of its legitimacy. Already, Mr Khasbulatov is mortally wounded and may have to resign.

Congress has also demonstrated that, far from being a personal duel between Mr Yeltsin and Mr Khasbulatov, the struggle is about the role of the legislature. Its members have yet to submit to the free will of the people, and they will strive to put off the day of reckoning for as long as possible.