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Yeltsin Urges Early Vote for Russian Presidency : Standoff: Public apathy favors the embattled leader. In first bloodshed, a police inspector is killed.

September 24, 1993|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOSCOW — President Boris N. Yeltsin, appearing more confident of his grip on power, called Thursday for presidential elections next June, two years ahead of schedule, in an effort to prod Russia's conservative Parliament to obey his decree and disband.

Instead, the Congress of People's Deputies voted in a late-night emergency session to strip the 62-year-old president of his powers, confirming a judgment by the smaller Supreme Soviet legislature that Yeltsin's order Tuesday was unconstitutional and had disqualified him from office.

Because Congress has no enforcement power, the decision did little but add tension to a surreal political climate in which two men--Yeltsin and his erstwhile vice president, Alexander V. Rutskoi--claim to be Russia's chief of state.

The show-of-hands vote by more than 600 deputies, from which two dissented and three abstained, came at the end of a long day of nervous maneuvering, rumors of violent plots and growing impatience by Yeltsin's supporters with the presence of 200 or so armed paramilitary guards protecting Rutskoi's team inside the Parliament building.

In the first bloodshed attributed to the crisis, the Interior Ministry said a police inspector was killed Thursday night after stopping a jeepload of armed men in camouflage uniforms at a checkpoint near the Russian-controlled military headquarters of the Commonwealth of Independent States. A bystander was also killed and a second police officer wounded.

Firmly in control of military and police commanders, as well as central government ministries, Yeltsin threw Russia into political turmoil Tuesday by disbanding the Congress and Supreme Soviet, which have resisted his free-market reforms for months. He ordered the election of a new 400-seat legislature Dec. 11 and 12.

Ruled out of line by Russia's Constitutional Court, Yeltsin sought Thursday to reassure Russians of his commitment to democracy by announcing presidential elections June 12--something he had earlier promised but not decreed.

"I think this will calm many people," a relaxed and confident-looking Yeltsin told reporters in the Kremlin. "This means that Yeltsin does not search for personal gain. . . . He is fighting for Russia."

But Yeltsin, who became Russia's first freely elected leader in June, 1991, with Rutskoi as his running mate, backed away from an earlier pledge not to seek reelection, saying he might run after all.

Shortly afterward, Rutskoi outlined his own election proposal at the White House, calling for voting on Feb. 23 for a president and a legislature like the present one. In a surprise gesture, he offered to stay out of the race and serve as "a guarantor" of fairness.

Rutskoi, a 46-year-old air force general and Afghan War hero, insisted simultaneous elections were the only way to break the deadlock of mistrust between Yeltsin's supporters and the Parliament.

"When the president says we should elect a new Parliament and in six months elect a new president, I would advise him to search for fools elsewhere," Rutskoi said.

The debate over elections, which both men agreed is the only way out of the crisis, could be taken as the first sign of groping for a compromise, although neither side was willing to say that publicly. Instead, Rutskoi called for nationwide "acts of civil disobedience against the anti-popular regime."

"We can talk about compromise only on what punishment (Yeltsin and his aides) should receive," Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov said.

And Yeltsin moved against the most prestigious would-be mediator in the dispute, Constitutional Court Chairman Valery D. Zorkin by taking away his car phone and country home, and relieving the court of its security guards.

As they have since the start, most Russians ignored the crisis and went about their daily chores--an apathy favoring Yeltsin. But uncertainty over the outcome drove the ruble down 18 points to a record low, trading 1,299 to the dollar.

A poll of 600 Russians by the Opinion Service firm showed 62% backed Yeltsin's decision to suspend Parliament and 14.5% opposed it.

The president won an emotional endorsement from Mstislav Rostropovich, the world-renowned cellist just back to visit his motherland, and met with George Soros, the millionaire from New York who is funding a $250-million aid project to Russia. Today, Yeltsin's legitimacy gets another boost when he hosts a summit of presidents of former Soviet republics here.

Yeltsin has also picked up critical support from two powerful figures who had sided with Parliament in the past--Prosecutor General Valentin G. Stepankov, who angered lawmakers by refusing to start criminal proceedings against the president, and Viktor V. Gerashchenko, head of the Central Bank.

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