The clash over who should rule Russia took an ominous turn Monday when Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov called on the armed forces to prevent President Boris N. Yeltsin from dissolving parliament.
Addressing the Duma, the parliament's lower house, Zyuganov warned that if Yeltsin ignores Communist demands in the debate over forming a new government, "everything may spill into the streets."
"I am appealing to all people, especially to those who wear a uniform," he said. "The last little island of legality that still exists in the country is here in the Duma and the Federation Council [the upper house]. If it is finished and destroyed, then chaos and gangs will prevail."
But it was unclear who, in or out of uniform, was listening. Zyuganov, who lost to Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential race, is a notorious demagogue who breaks legislative deals almost as fast as he can make them.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party has found itself working within a quasi-democratic system--even though its philosophy calls for overthrowing such a system. Now, with an economic and political crisis paralyzing the government, the Communists seem to be staking their future on fomenting unrest, not on making parliamentary compromises.
The Communists are the largest faction in the Duma and, with their allies, can often thwart the president's proposals in parliament. In Monday's debate over the confirmation of acting Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a leftist alliance easily mustered enough votes to reject Yeltsin's nominee.
If they succeed in blocking his candidate two more times, Yeltsin will be required under the constitution to dissolve the Duma and call early elections--a move that, in the present political climate, could benefit the Communists most of all.
"We are not afraid to be dissolved," declared Anatoly I. Lukyanov, leader of a Communist faction in the Duma and a onetime secretary of the party Central Committee during the Soviet era. "Let Yeltsin do it and he will see that in three months, the country will get a far more leftist parliament. We are ready for reelection. I don't think Yeltsin is."
Some analysts interpreted Zyuganov's appeal to the army simply as a warning to Yeltsin that the Communists are more serious about fighting Chernomyrdin than they were last spring when Yeltsin managed to push through the confirmation of Sergei V. Kiriyenko as prime minister.
"This is just bare rhetoric," said Igor M. Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies. "They have no mechanism to rule the masses the way they did in the past. This is all intended to scare Yeltsin--but our president is the last person to be scared by Communists."
However, Viktor A. Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, suggested that there might be a larger plan hidden behind Zyuganov's words.
"His appeal to the military is not so lightweight and rhetorical as one might think," Kremenyuk said. "The Communists don't have enough support in the armed forces to make them rebel against the president, that's for sure. But I think they have enough supporters among the officers' ranks to block any attempt by the president to use the army in case of civil riots or grave political crisis."
In 1993, in a clash with the holdover Soviet-era parliament, Yeltsin called out the military and ordered tanks to fire on the Russian White House, the seat of government, where his opponents had barricaded themselves. Yeltsin won the battle and was able to force through a constitution giving him unrivaled power over parliament.
But now, should Yeltsin have to call out the tanks again, Kremenyuk said, the armed forces might be more reluctant to follow his orders.
He speculated that the Communists might try to use the crisis to force Yeltsin out of office. Under this scenario, they would first bring on the disbanding of parliament by blocking confirmation of a new prime minister. Then, in protest over the dissolution of parliament, they would refuse to leave their building the way the rebels did five years ago.
"Next time, I am not so sure the military will obey Yeltsin's orders to kick the ousted legislators out," Kremenyuk said. "This would result in a major political crisis which could crush Yeltsin psychologically and force him to resign. In this sense, Zyuganov's appeal to the military doesn't seem so devoid of meaning."
Vladimir Ryzhkov, deputy chairman of the Duma and a Chernomyrdin backer, also suggested that the Communists are pursuing that goal--but with a different strategy. Communist leaders, he noted, have already begun organizing a nationwide protest for October that they hope will galvanize opposition to the president.
"They are counting on the weakness of Yeltsin's regime, the sorry state of the economy and massive support for their nationwide Oct. 7 mass rally," Ryzhkov said. "This could grow into a national strike, paralyze industry and force Yeltsin to his knees. But this is a very, very risky game for them."
Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.