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Russia: Duma To Decide On Impeachment And Prime Minister

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 14 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The following is an outline of the main issues surrounding two key upcoming votes expected in the Russian State Duma -- a vote on the impeachment of President Boris Yeltsin (May 15) and on Sergei Stepashin as prime minister (May 19).

A special committee set up in Russia's State Duma has selected five impeachment charges against President Boris Yeltsin.

The charges are: - the dissolution of the Soviet Union; - starting a bloody war against breakaway Chechnya in 1994; - the use of force against parliament (then the Supreme Soviet) in 1993; - the collapse of Russia's military forces; - and the so-called genocide against the Russian people by implementing policies that impoverished Russians, wrecked the health care system and shortened life expectancy.

According to most Duma politicians and observers, only once charge -- starting the war in Chechnya -- has a chance to gather the required 300 votes.

Predictions on numbers vary widely. As of today, more than 250 deputies seem likely to vote against Yeltsin on the Chechnya count. But Russian media report that furious negotiating is under way with the Kremlin.

The vote is expected to be close.

The Communists and their allies in the Agrarian and People's Power factions jointly control some 208 votes in the house. Communist leaders have said their factions will vote for impeachment on all charges.

After holding faction meetings, the moderate Our Home Is Russia bloc (NDR) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultra-nationalist Liberal and Democratic Party declared they will vote against impeachment on all counts. However, some NDR deputies are believed to be inclined to vote against Yeltsin on Chechnya. These two factions control some 110 votes.

Two other factions, as well as a group of independent deputies are expected to play a key role in the outcome of tomorrow's vote.

The moderate Yabloko, led by economist Grigory Yavlinsky, controls 46 votes. Yavlinsky said faction members will likely vote for impeachment over Chechnya and some could also support other charges. However, observers say that surprises are possible with this faction.

The Russian Regions faction also controls 46 votes. Some communist-oriented members (like Vladimir Semago) are part of this group, which does not usually have a common line.

Some 32 Duma deputies have not joined any faction. Many are close to the moderate positions of Democratic Choice of Russia, the party of economist Yegor Gaidar, and are seen as unlikely to back impeachment charges. However, some could vote for impeachment on Chechnya.

The Supreme Court has to rule on the legal content of the charges. To approve the impeachment charge -- starting the 1994-1996 war against Chechnya -- that is seen at the eve of the vote as the most likely to be passed by the Duma, the Supreme Court would have to overturn a 1995 ruling by the Constitutional Court. That ruling endorsed the legality of the war against the breakaway republic.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that there is a clear contradiction between Article 109 and Article 111 of the Constitution. The first states that if the Duma votes to impeach the president, he is automatically forbidden from disbanding the chamber. But the second says that if the Duma refuses three times to approve the president's candidate for prime minister the president must dissolve the Duma and call early parliamentary elections.

Since Yeltsin this week dismissed Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and nominated First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin for the post, the possibility exists that both circumstances could come into play at the same time.

Many deputies fear that this could be the basis for a dangerous confrontation, as in 1993, when Yeltsin sent tanks to subdue a rebellion by the Supreme Soviet, causing dozens of deaths and injuries.

Vladimir Putin, who heads Russia's Federal Security Service, indicated in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that a deadlock scenario could be seen as a positive one by the Kremlin.

Since the Constitution is vague on what would happen in this case, the Kremlin could seek a way out by asking the Constitutional Court to rule on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Duma would be suspended -- but not disbanded -- and Yeltsin could appoint an acting prime minister, in expectation also of the end of the impeachment procedure, which must come within three months after a Duma impeachment vote that sets it in motion, according to Article 93 of the Constitution.

There are, however, other scenarios.

The daily "Vremya-MN" today suggested three possible ones.

The most unlikely would see the Duma failing to pass even one impeachment charge tomorrow and approving Stepashin as the new prime minister on Wednesday.

This scenario is considered unlikely, because deputies would be seen as "losing face."

Under the second, described by the daily as "suicidal," deputies would vote to impeach Yeltsin tomorrow and on Wednesday they would vote against Stepashin's approval, too. In this case the Duma would begin giving Yeltsin possible legal grounds to disband it.

The third scenario, considered possible also by some of Yeltsin's communist foes, would have the Duma voting for the president's impeachment tomorrow, but approving Stepashin on Wednesday.

In this way the Duma would avoid a full-scale showdown with the often-unpredictable president.

All day yesterday deputies were speaking mostly against Stepashin, but some influential legislators started floating the third scenario as a possible one at the end of the first day of impeachment hearings and after some faction leaders met with the prime minister-nominee

One of Yeltsin's main foes in the Duma, Security Committee Chairman Viktor Ilyukhin, said yesterday evening that he "could agree on any candidacy, because any candidate for prime minister today will discredit himself in two or three months, under Yeltsin's leadership."

And Agrarian faction leader Nikolai Kharitonov told NTV commercial television that, if the Duma votes to impeach Yeltsin, Stepashin could stand a better chance on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, at the request of several senators, Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroyev has reluctantly called an emergency session to discuss the crisis for Monday, May 17.

The session of the upper house could provide the Duma with an important signal, ahead of the vote on Stepashin.

Until this year, regional bosses sitting in the chamber had generally been loyal to the president, avoiding use of their constitutional powers against him.

But as Yeltsin's powers appeared to erode at a dramatic pace since last year's financial and political meltdown, the search for a leader of a new "party of power" intensified into this Spring.

For the first time senators openly challenged Yeltsin's wishes, repeatedly refusing to approve the Kremlin's dismissal of Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov.

However, analysts say that, even if the double refusal to sack Skuratov suggests that regional bosses are willing to defy Yeltsin, this certainly does not indicate that they would support the Duma's impeachment bid.

The director of the Moscow-based Institute of Political Studies, Sergei Markov, gives two reasons for this.

Yeltsin's impeachment, he says, would be "a very dangerous precedent" for the regional bosses, some of whom have very little sympathy for a communist-promoted impeachment.

Markov told RFE/RL that members of the Federation Council "will inevitably think that, if the federal president can be impeached, then a republican president, or a governor can too".

The second reason, according to Markov, is that senators "know very well Yeltsin's ... style of conducting policy and they know that, despite illness and age, the president most probably would not comply with an impeachment verdict."

If impeachment is approved, the president must quit, while the prime minister takes temporary control, with some restrictions. The prime minister cannot disband parliament, call referendums or amend the constitution.

After the president is removed, a new presidential election must be held within three months.

Markov said he could not imagine Yeltsin agreeing to this and said he believes members of the upper house have the same doubts. Markov said they know that "such an outcome would simply mean transforming the constitutional fight into active confrontation, with all the dangerous and destabilizing possibilities coming with it."

(This is part 2 of a two-part series)