Moscow, 12 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's lower house, the State Duma, on Thursday begins its long-awaited debate on whether to impeach president Boris Yeltsin.
Legislators plan to work 10 to 12 hours a day during the three-day debate. A vote could come as early as Saturday.
Yeltsin faces five charges, proposed by the Communists and their allies and earlier this year set out by a special Duma impeachment commission. They are: leading the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, using force against parliament in 1993, launching the war in Chechnya, ruining the country's army and pursuing faulty economic policies which have impoverished the country.
Each charge will be voted individually. For the impeachment to succeed, at least one charge needs the support of two-thirds of the Duma's 450 deputies, or 300 deputies. Yeltsin would then face a lengthy process involving the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court and the Federation Council to actually remove him from office.
Observers in Moscow say that only one charge - starting the 1994-96 war against breakaway Chechnya -- has a chance of winning support of 300 deputies in the Communist-led chamber.
The Duma Council has invited Yeltsin to attend the debate, but the Kremlin representative in the lower house, Aleksander Kotenkov, said there's no chance the president will show up.
The moderate leader of the political group Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky, confirmed yesterday that his faction will back only the charge accusing Yeltsin of initiating the botched Chechnya war.
Yavlinsky said his faction is in favor of a legal impeachment procedure but is against creating what he called a farce that could be exploited by the communists and their allies ahead of parliamentary elections in December.
"We will insist that any faction and the presidential side be able to call witnesses; we will insist that the main rapporteur be the impeachment committee, not the Communist party; and we will insist that the discussion be on articles of the criminal code and on concrete issues. As far as our [faction's] vote is concerned, we have decided it will support accusations concerning Chechnya. This is because the outcome of the Chechen events caused the death of tens of thousands of people. We also believe the war caused the disintegration of the Russian army. Altogether, we think this is enough for the consideration of the issue in court."
Yabloko is expected to play a key role in the vote. The Communist faction and its allies, the Agrarian faction and the radical People's Power, account for about 220 votes.
With the support of Yabloko's deputies, the motion could win 270 votes, but that would still not be enough for impeachment.
The leader of the centrist Our Home Is Russia faction, Vladimir Ryzhkov, said yesterday his group will vote against impeachment on all charges. But he added that the Chechnya charge has a high possibility of mustering the 300 votes.
He said this would be the case if the 46 deputies of the Russian Regions faction vote in favor of impeachment.
Russian Region's leader Oleg Morozov told the Interfax news agency that 20 members of his faction could vote for the president's impeachment on the Chechnya charge.
Although the vote is likely to be close, most analysts say there is little chance that even the Chechnya charge will muster enough votes to prolong the impeachment process.
Many officials yesterday, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, spoke out against Yeltsin's impeachment. They are concerned that it could fatally destabilize Russia's political situation.
Adding to the stability question are persistent rumors that Yeltsin intends to sack Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov if the impeachment process is allowed to get underway.
For his part, Primakov met with Duma factional leaders yesterday to advise them not to impeach Yeltsin. He says Yeltsin should serve out his term, which ends next summer.
Primakov says his government, in spite of needing Duma support for a number of tough economic bills demanded by the International Monetary Fund, would not support a vote of impeachment.
Yavlinsky, one of Primakov's main sponsors last year but who since has backed away from the prime minister, rejects any link between Primakov's future and the impeachment debate.
"If the government of the Russian Federation works badly, it has to be dismissed independently from the results of the impeachment vote. We cannot remain hostages to a Communist government depending on how the Duma votes on impeachment. This is simply impossible."
Primakov is expected to meet with Yeltsin today. Observers note that Yeltsin has a habit of abruptly firing top officials. They say a sudden move cannot be ruled out.