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Russia: Duma Begins Yeltsin Impeachment Debate

Moscow, 13 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, today begins what are expected to be three days of debate on whether to impeach President Boris Yeltsin.

The debate inaugurates a long process that could remove Yeltsin from office.

Deputies say they'll put in longer than usual hours this week in order to consider the five charges against Yeltsin, including one that the president instigated the botched war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

On Saturday, the Duma is due to vote on each charge separately. For the impeachment process to continue, at least one of the charges must be supported by two-thirds of the 450 deputies, or by 300 deputies.

Russia's vague 1993 constitution makes impeaching a president and removing him from office very difficult.

If one of the five charges musters the necessary support, the Duma has five days to submit the charges to the Supreme Court for examination and to the Constitutional Court to confirm that the procedure has not been violated. If both courts give a positive ruling, the accusations then go to the upper house, the Federation Council. A two-thirds council majority is then required to remove Yeltsin from office.

Analysts say that behind the legal maneuvering and parliamentary debate is a power struggle that threatens to send the country into a constitutional crisis.

They say the first moves may have been made yesterday when the President sacked prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and appointed Yeltsin loyalist Sergei Stepashin as acting premier..

Under Russian law, any new prime minister must be approved by the Duma. If the Duma fails to approve the president's choice in three tries, the president must dissolve the body and call fresh elections.

The feared constitutional deadlock stems from the fact that Yeltsin can not dissolve the Duma after the start of the impeachment process after the Duma votes on the charges and submits them to the Supreme Court.

The Duma is set to begin considering Stepashin as Russia's new prime minister on Wednesday (May 19).

None of the wrangling will be necessary if the Duma fails to come up with the necessary votes against Yeltsin on at least one of the five impeachment charges.

Until Primakov was sacked, only one charge --the one involving the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya-- was considered as standing a chance of winning 300 votes.

But with tempers now flaring in the Communist-led Duma after Primakov's dismissal, some say the charges will be approved easily.

Duma Speaker and prominent Communist Gennady Seleznev said that after Primakov's sacking Yeltsin's impeachment "will gather not 300 but 400 votes."

The task of the Kremlin, analysts say, is to convince deputies belonging to moderate political groups such as Yabloko and the Russian Regions to reject impeachment for the good of the country and the constitution.

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, appearing on last night on NTV commercial television, said the impeachment issue "remains open" for his faction.

The Director of the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies, Andrei Piantkovsky, told RFE/RL's Russian service that the Communist faction and its satellites "cannot afford to lose face" in front of their electorate in the impeachment vote.

However, according to Piantkovsky, Yabloko or Russian Region members could tell voters that in order to prevent the full destabilization of the country, they could continue to condemn Yeltsin's actions on Chechnya, while at the same time withdrawing their vote for impeachment.