President Boris N. Yeltsin on Tuesday took the gamble of his political life by dissolving the obstructionist Russian legislature and moving to replace it with a new elective body.
The audacious step created an instant uproar and plunged this country into its deepest governmental crisis since the August, 1991, attempted coup, which led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin said he was acting to stem a “fruitless and senseless” struggle that threatened to lead Russia into a political abyss.
Leaders of the Supreme Soviet, or legislature, instantly declared Yeltsin’s order null and void, armed the legislative guards and elected Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, a Yeltsin rival, as acting president.
Hours after Yeltsin’s announcement, they also voted 144 to 6 to impeach Yeltsin. That vote came under new rules reducing the quorum for action by the 248-member body to 50% from two-thirds.
By late Tuesday night, there were no signs that the confrontation was about to be settled by force, even though a peaceful path out of the impasse seemed elusive. The streets of Moscow were calm, and government security officials said there were no immediate signs of unrest anywhere in the country.
The armed forces, for their part, said through a Defense Ministry press spokesman that they would “act in compliance with the constitution and laws of the country and, as before, will keep strict political neutrality.” Although the statement could be interpreted as favorable by either side, its hint of a preference for inaction in the short term seemed to benefit Yeltsin.
In his nationally televised address at 8 p.m. Moscow time, Yeltsin called for creation of a new, bicameral legislature called the Federal Assembly, to consist of representatives chosen in elections Dec. 11 and 12. Once it convened, Yeltsin said, he would call early presidential elections.
He acknowledged that he has no constitutional authority to dissolve Parliament but restated his position that the body is an outmoded, Soviet-era institution sustained in office by a useless constitution.
“The current constitution does not provide for . . . a worthy way out of the statehood crisis,” he said. “Being the guarantor of security of our state, I must suggest a way out from the dead end and break the destructive and vicious circle.”
Hours later, Russia’s Constitutional Court, which was established in 1991 to rule on intra-governmental questions, formally pronounced Yeltsin’s order unconstitutional by a 9-to-4 vote and ruled his action grounds for impeachment.
Within minutes of Yeltsin’s announcement, the battle lines between opposing claimants to government authority were drawn.
Vice President Rutskoi, a former war hero who broke with the president after supporting him through the 1991 coup crisis, labeled Yeltsin’s order a “coup d’etat” and announced that, in accordance with the constitution, he was taking on the duties of president. As his first action, he said, he was overturning Yeltsin’s suspension of the Parliament.
Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, Yeltsin’s bitterest opponent in the power struggle, labeled Yeltsin the “former president” and called on Russian trade unions to go on strike to protest Yeltsin’s order.
Extremist legislators even greeted the prospect of armed conflict in the power struggle enthusiastically. In an interview with The Times, Ilya V. Konstantinov, a prominent right-wing legislator who favors the re-establishment of the Soviet Union, said: “Blood will be shed, that is for sure. We are extremely close to civil war.”
On the other hand, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin said the Cabinet remains behind Yeltsin. “The stand of the Russian government on Boris Yeltsin’s address to the nation and his decree is the only one--support,” he said.
Dressed in a black suit and maroon tie, Yeltsin in his 20-minute taped address at first spoke haltingly but seemed to gather strength as he went on. At one point, he paused to take a sip from a china cup.
As the target of Yeltsin’s order, the legislature took on the appearance of an armed camp. Parliamentary guards were issued bullet-proof vests and Kalashnikov rifles, and with Parliament’s approval, Chairman Khasbulatov placed Vladislav Achalov, a former three-star general ousted from the army for complicity in the 1991 coup, in charge of defense of the White House, the downtown Moscow parliamentary building.
Parliament also quickly voted to replace Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev with Achalov, and it voted to replace Security Minister Nikolai Golushko with his predecessor, Viktor P. Barannikov, whom Yeltsin fired in July.
Outside the White House, a Brezhnev-era marble tower overlooking the Moscow River, a modest crowd of 1,500 to 3,000 onlookers gathered, many of them elderly and some of them frequent attendees of nationalist and Communist rallies at the site.
Some collected pipes, stones and bricks and assembled small barricades of no more than symbolic utility. On a main thoroughfare running past the building, traffic moved freely and the police presence was sparser than at most standard political rallies.
No military troops were sighted anywhere near the building, despite claims by Rutskoi and others in the legislature that Yeltsin had plotted to deploy special army detachments to enforce his order.
Communist leaders, who have been increasingly identified with the Parliament, appeared on the White House balcony and urged the crowd to stay on into the night. They waved red flags and chanted, “Soviet Union, Soviet Union.”
Many outside the building seemed taken with the irony of gathering at the very site where Yeltsin himself, just over two years ago, stood atop a tank next to Rutskoi and faced down the right-wing coup plotters.
“We’ve reversed roles with the democrats,” said Andrei V. Chugunov, 48, a worker. “They were here in 1991, and now we’re here to defend the White House. But this time the president is the coup plotter.”
Others were preoccupied with the rising cost of bread and other indicators of their declining economic standing in post-Soviet Russia.
“We can’t buy new clothes anymore,” said Vladimir Sokolov, a 45-year-old army captain. “Almost all our income goes for food.” He said he earns 100,000 rubles a month, or about $100: “A girl out of the university earns more than I do.”
To a certain extent, the timing of Yeltsin’s latest move was dictated by events. This summer, he predicted that the fall would see a resolution of the power struggle that has paralyzed political decision-making all year.
But his most recent attempts to resolve the crisis have met with failure. A plan to establish a new constitution strengthening presidential authority was stymied by the creation of a counterproposal by Khasbulatov’s Parliament and by disagreements over how to enact the document.
As recently as last week, his plan to create a “federation council,” made up of representatives of regions and autonomous republics, foundered when the representatives themselves refused to assume parliamentary powers.
Yeltsin may also have felt the need to move before three upcoming events: Friday’s Moscow summit of leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the rump association of former republics of the Soviet Union that is dominated by Russia; the formal convening of the legislature on Sept. 28, and the convening of the Congress of People’s Deputies, the unruly parent body of the standing Supreme Soviet, that possibly would have been dominated by anti-Yeltsin forces, on Nov. 17.
But in a larger sense he was provoked to act by the mutual animosity between himself and the legislative leadership embodied by Khasbulatov--who, like Rutskoi, was a Yeltsin ally in the months immediately after the 1991 coup. This enmity last came to a head in March, when the Congress tried but failed to impeach the president.
Yeltsin called a referendum in April in which Russian voters expressed preference for him and his policies over Parliament. But he failed to capitalize on the vote with decisive moves against the legislative branch.
Khasbulatov and his compliant legislators then passed a series of antagonizing measures aimed at rolling back the pace of Yeltsin’s privatization program and undermining other economic and political initiatives.
In recent weeks, rancor between the branches escalated sharply. In Tuesday’s speech, Yeltsin referred repeatedly to the deteriorating relations at the top reaches of government, complaining that many of the Parliament’s most recent decisions were “purposely designed to worsen the situation in Russia.”
Times staff writer Sonni Efron, with reporters Sergei Loiko and Andrei Ostroukh of The Times’ Moscow Bureau, contributed to this report.
Crisis in Moscow
Here are key elements in Tuesday’s Russian governmental crisis, the worst since the 1991 coup that broke up the Soviet Union:
Speech: Boris N. Yeltsin announces in an televised address that he has dissolved the Russian legislature, and is replacing it with a new Federal Assembly whose members will be elected in December, with presidential election to follow.
The Legislature: The Supreme Soviet instantly declares Yeltsin’s order null and void. Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, a Yeltsin rival, is elected acting president, and Yeltsin is impeached on a 144-6 vote.
Ruling: The Constitutional Court, meeting in emergency session, rules that Yeltsin may be impeached.
White House: Ppresident Clinton offers his support for Yeltsin and says the events are part of the evolution of Russian democracy. Secretary of State Warren Christopher urges Congress to keep up aid to Russia.
Russian Army: The military appears to be neutral. There were only modest crowds in Moscow’s streets. Cabinet members in Russia seem to be backing Yeltsin.