Court Takes Center Stage In Russian Crisis

But Yeltsin withholds `special rule' decree, delaying parliament's impeachment effort

RUSSIA's political crisis has entered a twilight zone where everyone wants to rule, but no one actually wields power.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin has declared he will govern by "special rule," but the conservative-dominated parliament immediately retaliated by refusing to recognize what some termed "an attempted coup."

The parliament has kicked the issue to Russia's supreme judicial institution, the Constitutional Court, which is widely expected to overturn the president's decisions. But echoing the president, at least one justice says the court is perhaps too "politicized" to render an impartial ruling.

Some of the president's opponents heaped disdain on his declaration that only his decisions now have force.

"What is it? What's changed? Nothing," said Iona Andronov, a hard-line deputy, of Mr. Yeltsin's phantom decree. "Nothing works in this country, not even coups."

But the parliament, entangled in its own rhetoric about strictly adhering to the Constitution, is hesitating to remove Yeltsin.

"The whole political crisis degenerated into a farce long ago, but now I'm afraid that it can grow into a tragic farce," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, chief of the Moscow think tank Panorama Information Center, referring to the increasing possibility that the power struggle will spark the disintegration of the Russian Federation and civil war.

The political crisis boiled over March 20, when Yeltsin an-nounced he would govern by "special rule," bypassing parliament until an April 25 popular vote on a new constitution, and a presidential vote of confidence.

But it appears Yeltsin lacks the means to enforce his will. That is because the ministers of defense, security, and interior are staying neutral in the constitutional crisis, while Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and Security Council head Yuri Skokov are opposing the president.

Yeltsin's hard-line parliamentary foes, meanwhile, are itching to impeach the president.

It seems the Supreme Soviet, the standing parliament, cannot take action because Yeltsin's decree on special rule had not been published by yesterday. The "special rule" cannot go into effect until the decree is published.

Without the published decree, grounds for the president's impeachment are tenuous. That, in turn, frustrated hard-liners' attempts Sunday to convene the Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet-era body that is con-stitutionally the highest authority, to consider impeachment.

The spotlight has shifted to the Constitutional Court, which must rule Yeltsin's actions unconstitutional before impeachment proceedings could begin. The court began hearings yesterday on the issue with presidential advisers arguing Yeltsin's case, Justice Ernest Ametistov told the Monitor in a telephone interview.

The justice said that if the court was to help resolve the crisis of power, it would have to rule not only on Yeltsin's actions, but also on the legality of the decision taken at the 8th session of the Congress earlier this month. At that Congress, deputies adopted measures that considerably weakened presidential authority.

YELTSIN'S attempt to introduce special rule was "a direct consequence of the decisions of the Eighth Con-gress.... [The decisions] broke the balance of power," Mr. Ametistov argued.

But before deliberations began, Ametistov, who is considered a judicial liberal, questioned the court's ability to render a fair ruling. He criticized the recent actions of court Chairman Valery Zorkin, who has been outspoken in condemning Yeltsin's special- rule plan as unconstitutional and "an attempted coup."

Mr. Zorkin's statements reflect the court's "extreme politicization," Ametistov told the Interfax news agency. Presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov says Zorkin's comments show bias in favor of the parliament.

If the court rules against Yeltsin, it is not clear if the hard-liners can muster the two-thirds majority at the Congress needed to impeach the president, several deputies say.

Observers also question whether Yeltsin would recognize a Constitutional Court ruling against him, or a decision by the Congress to impeach him.

"This could lead to a situation in which regional leaders won't obey orders coming from the center," Mr. Pribylovsky says. Already leaders in the autonomous region of Karelia, bordering Finland, branded Yeltsin's actions as un-constitutional and destabilizing.

Perhaps the only way out is for Yeltsin to back off from his "special rule" decree, observers say. At parliament's emergency session Sunday, several speakers, including Mr. Rutskoi, offered the president such an escape route, saying they only objected to special rule, not Yeltsin's intention to hold a popular vote of confidence in his presidency April 25. The best thing Yeltsin could do is never release the text of his decree, Pribylovsky says.

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