MOSCOW — Parading its political irrelevance as proudly as the emperor who wore no clothes, Russia's lower house of parliament launched an impeachment motion against President Boris N. Yeltsin on Wednesday only to watch it fizzle amid the deputies' legendary discord.
Communists and deputies of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party demanded a vote to remove Yeltsin from office on the grounds that the ailing president has been out of the Kremlin for all but two weeks since his July 3 reelection.
But when the subject was raised at a typically rowdy session of the Duma, the pro-reform Our Home Is Russia faction stalked out, the liberal Yabloko group denounced the effort as a "provocation" and even some Communist members sought to distance themselves from the doomed motion.
Realizing they could not muster passage of the measure, even after a full day of partisan grandstanding, the deputies advanced the impeachment motion "as a basis" for further discussion. But then they shot it down for the moment in a roll-call vote that turned up only 87 supporters in the 450-seat house.
The theatrics, replete with ultranationalist insults and temper tantrums, skirted the larger and more relevant issue of how much power should be vested in a single public office for which there is no viable mechanism for impeachment.
The Russian Constitution, largely written by Yeltsin before being submitted to the electorate for approval in December 1993, says the president must step down if for health reasons he demonstrates a "persistent inability to exercise power."
But it fails to define what constitutes inability and makes no provisions for an involuntary transfer of power. That leaves the onus on the leader himself to judge when and if he should step down--an unprecedented action in Russian history and one Yeltsin has shown no sign of contemplating.
Yeltsin, who turns 66 on Feb. 1, returned to the Kremlin briefly as the deputies debated his fate, the first time he has been to his office since falling ill with pneumonia and being sent to hospital on Jan. 8.
Frail and reclusive since undergoing quintuple bypass surgery Nov. 5, Yeltsin had been back to work for only two weeks when hit by Moscow's annual influenza epidemic over the extended New Year holiday.
The impeachment threat was raised by Communist Deputy Viktor I. Ilyukhin, the head of the Duma's Security Committee and a Communist connected with hard-liners who staged a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1991. Ilyukhin blamed Yeltsin's absences for economic hardships gripping the country, especially for the more than $8 billion owed to Russian workers and pensioners in delayed wages.
Communist Party chief Gennady A. Zyuganov, whom Yeltsin beat six months ago in independent Russia's first presidential election, said he acknowledged the need to debate Yeltsin's fitness for office but preferred to push for constitutional reform rather than the current president's ouster.
He suggested creating a medical examination board that would evaluate top officials' health so that conditions for transfer of power are "in a legal framework."
A mostly decorative institution in this democracy-in-progress, the Duma lacks the authority to unseat an elected president without support from virtually every other branch of power, including the Constitutional Court that is appointed by Yeltsin.
The Duma's own legal department advised last week that the legislative body had no power to remove the president. Some of the Duma's more sober members pointed out to their colleagues that a vote for impeachment could prompt Yeltsin to disband the legislature and call new elections.
Although Communists and nationalists grouped together have slightly more than half the seats in the Duma, they are far from the two-thirds majority needed to approve important motions and often are at odds within their own factions.
The brownstone edifice across from the Kremlin, which houses lawmakers, is more often the scene of fisticuffs and all-night parties than a spot that generates policy or legislation.