Yeltsin's enemies count up the votes for impeachment: President given court ruling at mother's gravE

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MOMENTS after burying his mother in a Moscow cemetery yesterday, President Boris Yeltsin received a court ruling opening the way for parliament to try to impeach Russia's first elected leader.

But conservative legislators pulled back from an all-out attack on the President, amid signs that they might not muster the votes needed to remove Mr Yeltsin from office.

After a day of thundering rhetoric and sometimes madcap farce, much of it centred on interpretation of an obscure footnote, Mr Yeltsin emerged slightly stronger in a power struggle that will determine his future and that of Russia's entire free-market reform drive.

With no end in sight, Russia's political battle has damaging international implications. A top Ukrainian official, Dmytro Pavlychko, said yesterday that Kiev could not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because of the turmoil. This undercuts a longstanding promise to do away with nuclear weapons left behind by the Soviet army.

In a ghoulish twist to the tumultuous saga unfolding in Moscow, the head of Russia's Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, informed Mr Yeltsin that he was in violation of the constitution at a graveside encounter at Novokuntsevskoe Cemetery. According to Interfax news agency, Mr Zorkin 'expressed his condolences and then handed him the text of the court's resolution'. The judgment says that Mr Yeltsin violated several articles of the constitution when he imposed special rule and called for a referendum next month to try to bypass a Soviet-era legislature stacked with his enemies. It made no direct mention of impeachment but Mr Yeltsin is far from safe.

Parliamentary leaders responded promptly with a call for an emergency session on Friday of the one body empowered to remove the President, the Congress of People's Deputies. 'It is clear as day that there is every ground for impeachment and that is why a Congress should be summoned as quickly as possible,' said Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of the Congress and the smaller working parliament, the Supreme Soviet, and Mr Yeltsin's most potent foe.

But then Mr Khasbulatov wavered. Before a resolution calling for a Congress session could come to a vote, Mr Khasbulatov told legislators to go home after only 17 minutes - out of respect for Mr Yeltsin's mother, who died aged 85 on Saturday.

A tireless foe of Mr Yeltsin, Iona Andronov, said: 'In the back rooms they are counting votes. We need exactly two thirds. We have approximately enough but not right now.'

Mr Yeltsin meanwhile issued an decree threatening to sack regional leaders if they failed to obey his order to organise a vote of confidence in his presidency and a separate poll on a new constitution on 25 April. Without regional officials behind him, Mr Yeltsin could win the battle in Moscow but lose the war for Russia.

In Washington, President Bill Clinton reiterated support for Mr Yeltsin, calling him the first democratically elected leader in 'a thousand years of Russian history'. Asked if he was right to give all his support to Mr Yeltsin, Mr Clinton said: 'You expect me to work with the Prime Minister of Great Britain even if he is of a party that was openly supportive of my opponent in the last election.'

The US would bring a 'specific' aid plan to the Clinton-Yeltsin summit planned in Vancouver for 3-4 April. The Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, said that the summit would not be shifted to Moscow.

The power struggle, page 10

Leading article, page 21

Hamish McRae, page 22

(Photograph omitted)