With his administration nearly paralyzed by corruption charges and countercharges, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin on Wednesday announced the suspension of Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, a political foe, and of Yeltsin’s own right-hand man, First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir F. Shumeiko.
The president’s spokesman said the two men will be stripped of their powers temporarily, until an investigation of their mutual accusations of corruption is completed.
Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, Yeltsin’s archrival, immediately denounced the order as illegal and said it will not be carried out.
Legal scholars also said the Yeltsin decree is blatantly unconstitutional and warned that it could tip Russia into a full-blown political and constitutional crisis.
“The president grossly violated the constitution if he really signed this decree,” said Lev A. Okunkov, director of the Institute of Lawmaking and Comparative Law.
The constitution contains “not one word” allowing the president to dismiss a duly elected vice president, even temporarily, Okunkov said. It does not even allow Yeltsin to sack a deputy prime minister except upon request of the prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who has been visiting Washington.
But the constitution does contain a new clause stating that if the president attempts to dismiss an elected official, the president’s own powers will be terminated automatically. How the clause would be implemented and who would “terminate” the president’s powers is not clear.
The provision, adopted last year to deter Yeltsin from dissolving Parliament, virtually invites the conservative legislature to renew its attempts to impeach him.
For his part, Yeltsin has promised an autumn political offensive against the rebellious Parliament he claims has stymied economic and political reform in the 21 months since the Soviet Union shattered. Yeltsin has vowed to hold new legislative elections and spearhead the adoption of a new constitution, with or without Parliament’s consent.
But his administration has been weakened this summer by a spate of unsubstantiated public accusations of corruption.
The ruckus began after Rutskoi accused Shumeiko of pocketing $14.5 million of state money earmarked for a baby food factory. Shumeiko denied it and is suing Rutskoi for libel.
Then a crime commission handpicked by Yeltsin accused Rutskoi of links to a Swiss bank account that allegedly holds $3.5 million of stolen government money. Rutskoi has promised a libel suit of his own.
To date, none of the accusations has been proven or refuted. But the mudslinging has reinforced the opinion held by many Russians that all public officials--be they Soviet-era holdovers or new “democrats"--are on the take.
Meanwhile, the level of political discourse grows ever baser. A Yeltsin spokesman recently called Khasbulatov “a cockroach.” In an interview published Tuesday, Rutskoi accused Yeltsin of ruining Russia “by remaining in an endless state of drunkenness.”
Yeltsin’s spokesmen said the suspensions of Shumeiko and Rutskoi were meant to keep the political brawl from further damaging state authority and prestige. They insisted the move was constitutional.
“The president had to temporarily relieve them of their duties, not of their posts,” said presidential aide Igor A. Kharichev. “Let them sort out their mutual accusations. Let them answer questions at the prosecutor’s office. And when all this scandal is over and all the charges are cleared, they may return to their duties.”
Rutskoi said he considered the order unconstitutional, noting that he was elected on the same ballot as Yeltsin in June, 1991. The mustachioed veteran of the war in Afghanistan has made no secret of his ambition to succeed Yeltsin as president. While he said Yeltsin had “broken the law,” Rutskoi said he would leave the matter to the Supreme Soviet and the Constitutional Court.
“I am deeply convinced that it is useless to try to influence this government and this president,” he told reporters at the airport in Syktyvkar, en route to a scheduled visit to the coal-mining center of Vorkuta in northern Russia.
Rutskoi said he will ask Parliament to open a criminal case against Yeltsin and his anti-corruption commission, saying both have sanctioned “slander, forgery of documents and a whole campaign” to frame him.
Shumeiko claimed he had asked Yeltsin to relieve him to allow him time to clear his name and to pursue his suit against Rutskoi.
In a yearlong confrontation with Parliament, Yeltsin has avoided breaching the Soviet-era constitution, even as he seeks the adoption of a new legal blueprint for post-Communist Russia. Thus, some interpreted his blunt move against Rutskoi as a sign that the president is preparing for a showdown with his enemies.