In Yeltsin vs. Parliament, the Likely Loser Is Russia
President Boris N. Yeltsin and his parliamentary rivals have revved up for a contest of political chicken that is expected to damage Russia’s progress toward stability no matter which side brakes first.
Both Yeltsin and opposition parties in the Duma, the parliamentary lower house, are refusing to yield in a high-stakes standoff that may lead to the second volatile confrontation between the president and the legislature in less than two years.
If Duma deputies meeting later this week reaffirm the no-confidence vote in Yeltsin’s government that they issued four days ago, the president will be compelled by the constitution to fire Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and his Cabinet or to disband the unruly Duma.
And by stating clearly that his choice would be the latter and a call for early elections, Yeltsin has put his opponents on notice that they will be voting on their own jobs.
Most Duma factions that voted with the majority in Wednesday’s 241-72 denunciation of the government for its handling of the hostage crisis earlier this month in southern Russia have defiantly announced they will do likewise in the second vote on Saturday.
That would appear to give Yeltsin a chance to follow through on his threat to get rid of the Duma, which has blocked his efforts at reform, and to rule by decree until fresh elections that would have to be held by November.
But analysts point out that resorting to what would constitute dictatorship might inflict irreparable harm on the president’s already tarnished image as a reformer and a democrat.
Yeltsin’s political backing eroded after his October, 1993, clash with rebellious lawmakers over presidential powers, when he sent troops and tanks to defeat armed opponents holed up in the White House, Russia’s parliamentary headquarters. The ensuing shootout took nearly 150 lives and paralyzed foreign investment vital to recovery.
A repeat of that power struggle, even a bloodless one, would cast the mercurial Yeltsin as a leader with whom few can get along and would foster a sympathy vote for his opponents, says Mikhail N. Afanasyev of the Presidential Analytical Center.
“Knowing the Russian people’s traditional love of the poor, the oppressed, the martyrs, the president ought to avoid repeating the mistake” of disbanding Parliament and provoking another conflict, Afanasyev observed.
Yeltsin’s popularity rating is already wretched, with the latest polls placing him behind the leaders of parties across the political spectrum, from liberal Grigory A. Yavlinsky to ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky.
No new opinion polls have been published since the devastating hostage incident in the town of Budennovsk, where 121 people were killed during and after a Chechen commando raid carried out in retaliation for the Kremlin’s 6-month-old war to suppress a separatist rebellion in Chechnya.
But the president’s approval rating, which has sunk as low as 6% in recent months, is expected to suffer further because of the low profile he maintained during the Budennovsk crisis. Yeltsin flew to a summit of world leaders in Halifax, Canada, in the midst of the terrorist assault and behaved erratically during the visit.
His absence and antics prompted vitriolic press attacks, as well as the no-confidence vote and a simultaneous push for impeachment.
It was Chernomyrdin, an uncharismatic survivor of the Communist Party apparatus, who negotiated the release of more than 1,000 hostages by giving their captors safe passage to Chechen-held land.
Parliamentary faction leaders who initiated the first vote against Yeltsin insist that they will stand by that action.
And they have warned the president that his ploy to dismiss them will backfire.
At a news conference of his Democratic Party of Russia, Deputy Sergei Y. Glazyev noted that a dissolution of the Duma by Yeltsin would “leave him alone with huge social responsibility” for Russia’s burgeoning army of unemployed, for the millions of homeless and starving and for the continuing war in Chechnya.
Chernomyrdin, who finds himself in the awkward position of being Yeltsin’s foil in the clash with Parliament, appealed Saturday for “a constructive solution to the political crisis.”
“It is not the time to wage such battles,” the prime minister told journalists during a break in a meeting of his political bloc, Our Home is Russia. “This will yield nothing, apart from harm to the country.”
Yegor T. Gaidar, one of Yeltsin’s former acting prime ministers and leader of the now-rival Russia’s Choice party, agreed that a change in government now could destabilize the country.
But Yavlinsky, a liberal economist who enjoys the strongest support of any reform-oriented politician, said his Duma bloc will vote against the government to show its disgust with the Chechen conflict and with the terrorism those hostilities have provoked.
Some Duma factions have suggested that they might change their attitude toward the government if Yeltsin fires Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, Interior Minister Viktor F. Yerin or Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai D. Yegorov at a meeting of the National Security Council set for Thursday. The three hard-liners have helped direct Russia’s Chechnya campaign.
But Chernomyrdin said he has no intention of backing calls for his ministers’ dismissal, and Yeltsin’s spokesman, Sergei K. Medvedev, told the Echo of Moscow radio network Friday that personnel changes are unlikely before a thorough investigation of the Budennovsk incident.