MOSCOW — President Boris N. Yeltsin on Tuesday took the gamble of his political life by dissolving the obstructionist Russian legislature and moving to replace it with a new elective body.
The audacious step created an instant uproar and plunged this country into its deepest governmental crisis since the August, 1991, attempted coup, which led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin said he was acting to stem a "fruitless and senseless" struggle that threatened to lead Russia into a political abyss.
Leaders of the Supreme Soviet, or legislature, instantly declared Yeltsin's order null and void, armed the legislative guards and elected Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, a Yeltsin rival, as acting president.
Hours after Yeltsin's announcement, they also voted 144 to 6 to impeach Yeltsin. That vote came under new rules reducing the quorum for action by the 248-member body to 50% from two-thirds.
By late Tuesday night, there were no signs that the confrontation was about to be settled by force, even though a peaceful path out of the impasse seemed elusive. The streets of Moscow were calm, and government security officials said there were no immediate signs of unrest anywhere in the country.
The armed forces, for their part, said through a Defense Ministry press spokesman that they would "act in compliance with the constitution and laws of the country and, as before, will keep strict political neutrality." Although the statement could be interpreted as favorable by either side, its hint of a preference for inaction in the short term seemed to benefit Yeltsin.
In his nationally televised address at 8 p.m. Moscow time, Yeltsin called for creation of a new, bicameral legislature called the Federal Assembly, to consist of representatives chosen in elections Dec. 11 and 12. Once it convened, Yeltsin said, he would call early presidential elections.
He acknowledged that he has no constitutional authority to dissolve Parliament but restated his position that the body is an outmoded, Soviet-era institution sustained in office by a useless constitution.
"The current constitution does not provide for . . . a worthy way out of the statehood crisis," he said. "Being the guarantor of security of our state, I must suggest a way out from the dead end and break the destructive and vicious circle."
Hours later, Russia's Constitutional Court, which was established in 1991 to rule on intra-governmental questions, formally pronounced Yeltsin's order unconstitutional by a 9-to-4 vote and ruled his action grounds for impeachment.
Within minutes of Yeltsin's announcement, the battle lines between opposing claimants to government authority were drawn.
Vice President Rutskoi, a former war hero who broke with the president after supporting him through the 1991 coup crisis, labeled Yeltsin's order a \o7 "coup d'etat" \f7 and announced that, in accordance with the constitution, he was taking on the duties of president. As his first action, he said, he was overturning Yeltsin's suspension of the Parliament.
Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, Yeltsin's bitterest opponent in the power struggle, labeled Yeltsin the "former president" and called on Russian trade unions to go on strike to protest Yeltsin's order.
Extremist legislators even greeted the prospect of armed conflict in the power struggle enthusiastically. In an interview with The Times, Ilya V. Konstantinov, a prominent right-wing legislator who favors the re-establishment of the Soviet Union, said: "Blood will be shed, that is for sure. We are extremely close to civil war."
On the other hand, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin said the Cabinet remains behind Yeltsin. "The stand of the Russian government on Boris Yeltsin's address to the nation and his decree is the only one--support," he said.
Dressed in a black suit and maroon tie, Yeltsin in his 20-minute taped address at first spoke haltingly but seemed to gather strength as he went on. At one point, he paused to take a sip from a china cup.
As the target of Yeltsin's order, the legislature took on the appearance of an armed camp. Parliamentary guards were issued bullet-proof vests and Kalashnikov rifles, and with Parliament's approval, Chairman Khasbulatov placed Vladislav Achalov, a former three-star general ousted from the army for complicity in the 1991 coup, in charge of defense of the White House, the downtown Moscow parliamentary building.
Parliament also quickly voted to replace Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev with Achalov, and it voted to replace Security Minister Nikolai Golushko with his predecessor, Viktor P. Barannikov, whom Yeltsin fired in July.
Outside the White House, a Brezhnev-era marble tower overlooking the Moscow River, a modest crowd of 1,500 to 3,000 onlookers gathered, many of them elderly and some of them frequent attendees of nationalist and Communist rallies at the site.