MOSCOW, MARCH 21 -- Russia's reform-resistant parliament took the first step toward impeaching President Boris Yeltsin today, while key security and defense officials vowed to stay out of the country's roiling political crisis.
The parliament, meeting in emergency session as several thousand pro- and anti-Yeltsin demonstrators rallied outside, voted 125 to 16 to ask Russia's Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of Yeltsin's Saturday announcement that he had assumed special powers to rule by decree.
The lawmakers rejected a proposal by Yeltsin's most vociferous critics to strip him of his powers immediately, but they endorsed a resolution criticizing Western governments for issuing statements supporting the president's action, declaring that these amounted to "interference in Russia's internal affairs."
The court has already begun considering the constitutionality of Yeltsin's moves and seems certain to side with his opponents, since Chief Justice Valery Zorkin has already declared the president's action to be an attempt at a "state coup." A court finding of unconstitutional action is necessary for Russia's highest legislative body, the Soviet-era Congress of People's Deputies, to vote to remove Yeltsin from office, as many members have vowed to do.
Such a vote -- and a possible effort to replace Yeltsin with Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who has broken with Yeltsin on a number of reform issues -- would certainly compound Russia's dangerous political crisis by further polarizing the rival power centers. Yeltsin's chief legal adviser, Sergei Shakrai, said the embattled president would ignore any legislative effort to remove him from office and would refuse to step down.
Moscow had an air of political theater about it today as a war of words continued to rage between the Kremlin -- historical seat of Russia's czars and commissars where Yeltsin now is ensconced -- and the parliament building overlooking the Moscow River, where Yeltsin successfully faced down a hard-line Soviet coup cabal in August 1991.
Yeltsin's decree giving himself "special powers" to rule still has not been published, leaving many lawmakers to wonder about his true intentions. Yeltsin was absent from today's debate, and the cabinet -- led by Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin -- appealed for calm as if the crisis were a natural disaster over which no one had control. The key ministers of defense, internal affairs and security -- who head the military, police apparatus and KGB -- then followed each other to the parliamentary podium to declare their wish to stay out of the political fray and conduct business as usual.
The three ministers did not directly endorse presidential rule, but their statements of neutrality and support for constitutional provisions barring armed intervention in partisan politics were seen by some as tacit signs of approval for Yeltsin's action. Their speeches were received perfunctorily by the lawmakers, who clearly hoped that at least one of them would break publicly with Yeltsin.
"Please, no more such speeches -- toothless, vague, noncommittal. It is not clear whom you support," said Parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, Yeltsin's chief adversary in the power struggle, after the ministers had spoken. Khasbulatov accused Yeltsin of leading Russia toward "neo-totalitarian rule, disintegration of the country, dictatorship."
Yeltsin announced Saturday that he was assuming temporary power to rule by decree until an April 25 nationwide referendum on his reformist leadership and a new draft constitution that would restructure the branches of government. The Russian leader said he was acting to prevent a return to communist rule by the Congress, which was elected in 1990 when Russia was one republic of the communist-ruled Soviet state and which remains dominated by pro-communists, ultranationalists and centrists opposed to Yeltsin's free-market and democratic reform policies.
At an emergency meeting earlier this month, the Congress severely restricted Yeltsin's powers, and lawmakers made clear they would try to dismantle many of his reforms and reduce him to a figurehead.
Yeltsin said Saturday that he would not try to prevent the parliament from meeting but that its decisions would have no legal force if they contradicted his decrees.
Western governments, including the United States and most of Europe, came out in support of Yeltsin, saying he was the key to continuation of Russian reforms.
Governments in former Soviet bloc countries also voiced support for Yeltsin, whom they see as a bulwark against Russian nationalists outraged at the loss of empire. In Bulgaria, which during the communist era was the Kremlin's closest ally, the government said Yeltsin's "formal non-democratic act has been provoked by the need to stop the creeping communist restoration from being carried out by old legislative institutions."
Similar concerns were heard from former Soviet republics, whose leaders see the current power struggle and instability in Moscow as a threat to their newly won independence. Both the Latvian and Lithuanian governments backed Yeltsin and his reformist program, as did Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, who has clashed with the Russian leader over defense, financial and other issues. Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, foreign minister of the Soviet Union during most of its final five years, said Yeltsin had chosen the only possible way of resolving the power struggle, but he warned that Russia "now faces the danger of civil war."
Premier Chernomyrdin, meanwhile, said that the months-old political conflict was deepening the country's economic chaos and called on the legislators to show restraint. He said that while he could not evaluate the constitutionality of Yeltsin's declaration, he believes the president has every right to take his appeal to the people. His remarks were greeted with grumbles from the lawmakers, and one called out, "You should resign."
Chernomyrdin, a Soviet-era industrial manager, was forced on Yeltsin by the parliament in December after the legislators refused to confirm Yegor Gaidar -- the architect of Yeltsin's economic program -- as premier, and many assumed Chernomyrdin would work to weaken the reform effort.
In advance of today's parliamentary session, Chernomyrdin and the cabinet released a statement supporting Yeltsin's action, saying it was necessary to create conditions "for the executive to work effectively." The statement added that the three "power" ministries -- defense, security and internal affairs -- would follow the "principles of the constitution" and would guarantee law and order "without pulling the armed forces, security forces and forces of law enforcement into the political struggle." Russia, it said, had to get through the crisis "without tanks and barricades, without rallies and bloodshed."