Prague, 12 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Reporting to legislators after a meeting with President Boris Yeltsin (April 9), Russian State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov announced two developments that appeared, at first glance, to be completely unconnected.
Seleznyov said Yeltsin told him he backs a request from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that Belgrade join the existing loose political union between Russia and Belarus. And, Seleznyov added, Yeltsin also requested that impeachment proceedings against him be halted. The two remarks are, in fact, quite closely connected.
A Duma impeachment debate had been set to begin next Thursday (April 15.) The lower house has formulated five charges against Yeltsin -- instigating the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, illegally shelling the Supreme Soviet in 1993, committing genocide against the Russian people, bringing the nation's military to ruin, and, finally, launching the botched war in Chechnya.
The charges were initiated by the Communists and other hard-liners who control the Duma. But this morning, a spokesman for the moderate Yabloko group -- which controls a key 46 seats in the 450-member Duma -- confirmed that it, too, would back impeachment, but only on one count -- the launching of the 1994 to 1996 war in Chechnya.
According to the Russian Constitution, the impeachment motion must follow a complicated procedure. First, it has to win a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. Then the motion must be approved by both the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court, an outcome which until recently was considered unlikely.
But Yeltsin's grip on power has so weakened in the past year that many Kremlin officials acknowledge in private conversations that impeachment proceedings now stand a real chance of succeeding. They believe that a two-thirds approval vote in the Duma would have a huge psychological impact on all the other institutions involved.
For many political analysts in Moscow, it was immediately clear from Seleznyov's tone that some kind of political bargaining is under way. Nikolai Petrov -- a senior associate of the Carnegie Center in Moscow -- told RFE/RL that there is no doubt Yeltsin is now trying to end the impeachment threat with a political gesture -- a friendly move toward Yugoslavia -- that would pacify his Communist foes who dominate the Duma. Petrov said:
"We can talk about two possible methods that the president can use to solve his impeachment problem. One is to agree peacefully with the Communists, demonstrate something to them and promise them something. The non-peaceful way involves hardening [the Kremlin's] positions concerning the Communist party. This could end up with a ban of the party. There [is much] talk about that [going around in Moscow] now. And a formal juridical basis for this [ban] does exist."
Petrov added that, "as usual," the Kremlin may also be aiming at attaining other goals -- notably, trying to weaken Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's increasingly powerful status. Primakov and his government are seen by those around Yeltsin as progressively drifting toward the hard-line positions supported by the prime minister's Communist supporters in the Duma. For the past several weeks, Moscow has been awash with rumors that Yeltsin may be about to replace Primakov, or at least some of his cabinet members who belong to the Communist party.
Yeltsin denied on Friday, April 9, that a meeting he held the day before with former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin signaled a plan to bring him back to replace Primakov. The president was quoted as saying that "Primakov is useful at this stage, and later we shall see." But he also added that the current government needs strengthening.
Petrov says these developments show that the Kremlin -- although extremely weakened these days -- still sees the possible threat of using force against the Communist-dominated Duma as a way to advance its positions.
"The second scenario, including the use of force, can be implemented on its own, or as a threat, made in order to achieve peaceful agreements on terms that are advantageous for the president."
Yet, not long after Seleznyov told legislators about Yeltsin's request to halt impeachment proceedings, presidential spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin said Yeltsin does not want the impeachment vote postponed. Yakushkin indicated that what Yeltsin is aiming for is a full stop to -- not a simple delay of -- the Duma impeachment debate due to begin in four days. Yakushkin said that "the president has no motive to delay the matter. A postponed impeachment is a steadily smoldering threat to the country's political stability."
The Duma has put off a final decision on when to open the debate. After a short discussion, deputies simply put off the ballot on impeachment. They said the Duma needs more time to consider the issue and will vote again next Tuesday on whether or not to delay the debate.
For his part, Yeltsin said he is neither going to introduce a state of emergency nor ban the Communist party. Both rumors are in wide circulation in Moscow at the moment. The president was quoted as saying that "we can't ban the Communist party. This will backfire because Russian people are quick to feel pity for victims of oppression."
What has all this to do with Yugoslavia joining the Russia-Belarus Union?
The answer is easy, say some analysts. Russia is involved in a nationwide emotional protest against NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia. Both houses of parliament have called on Yeltsin and on the government to send weapons to Yugoslavia, which is seen by most Duma deputies as a brother Slav country heroically fighting NATO aggression.
In addition, say many Moscow analysts, involving Yugoslavia -- a country that shares no border with Russia and Belarus and was not part of the former Soviet Union -- in Moscow's inchoate union with Minsk would have no immediate or binding consequences. But, they add, the gesture could work as a sweetening pill for many Duma deputies.
Seleznyov -- who returned (April 8) from talks in Belgrade -- said Milosevic had asked him to tell Yeltsin that "a political path to solving the Balkan problems of Kosovo and Yugoslavia would be joining with Russia and Belarus." He was applauded by enthusiastic Duma deputies when he said that Yeltsin had expressed his support for the idea, had called Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- who was also said to support it -- and had already asked the Russian Foreign Ministry to draw up the relevant documents.
All this despite the fact that, only on Thursday, Yeltsin had said it was "premature" to consider a union with Yugoslavia. But if Western observers in Moscow expressed surprise at the turnabout, Russian analysts were more relaxed in their reactions. They totally ruled out the notion that a trilateral union initiative -- made at a time when Yugoslavia considers itself at war with NATO -- would mean that Russia and Belarus would support Belgrade militarily. Yeltsin has repeatedly denied that Russia would become militarily involved in the conflict and has pressed for a variety of diplomatic initiatives to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, however, is asking Moscow to clarify reports in the Russian media quoting Seleznyov as saying Yeltsin has ordered Russian missiles to be targeted at NATO countries bombing Yugoslavia.
Despite such reports, Petrov believes Moscow won't become involved militarily:
"I think that in any way one looks at this, it will not be the case of Russia taking part in military operations in Yugoslavia. If some kind of union is announced, it is likely that it means some general -- for the moment -- agreements and declarations, not linked with Russia's military action. I think it will be either something slow and amorphous like the Russia-Belarus Union that can be used for a long time as a potential way to put threats on somebody, start political bargaining, etc. Or it could be just a declaration that is not going to be followed by real deeds. I do not think that any such kind of move today for Yeltsin means a full back-peddling from his previous statements that Russia's involvement in the conflict is inadmissible."
In any event, says Petrov, Milosevic clearly has gained from the announcement, even if he has not achieved his goal of trying to involve Russia in military operations against NATO.
"In any case, this increases Milosevic's stand in his negotiations with the West and can certainly be used as a threat that Russia could indeed take more precise measures that would involve it in the conflict."