LATE on Wednesday night, in the upper floors of the White House, Russia's parliament building, teams of men in black leather jackets, carrying identical blue and red nylon sports bags, were quietly taping together banana clips of ammunition for the submachine guns slung over their shoulders. Down the hall, behind guarded doors, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who now claims to lead the country, huddled with aides.
The grim determination of the parliament to defy the edict of Russian President Boris Yeltsin of a day earlier, dissolving parliament and ordering fresh elections, was evident. But so was the palpable sense of isolation and the groping for an exit from this final stage of Russia's power crisis.
Mr. Yeltsin has moved quickly to convey the impression that the battle is all but over. He made sure the public saw the readiness of the Army, police, and security forces to line up behind him. The government yesterday began issuing orders to the Central Bank, which has been removed from the parliament's control.
Yeltsin has refused to talk to Mr. Rutskoi and the parliament, saying their institutions simply no longer exist. (Legality of Yeltsin's move, Page 3.)
``Yeltsin is nothing more than a regular citizen now,'' retorted parliament Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov yesterday. ``What compromises do you want?''
The parliament is moving to convene an emergency session of the Congress of People's Deputies, the supreme legislative body that under the Soviet-era constitution has the authority to impeach the president. Parliament officials claim to have rounded up 500 of the 698 deputies needed to form a quorum but plan to start meeting even before the necessary number arrives.
Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin yesterday warned against holding an ``illegal'' congress. ``It will push us to the brink of war,'' he said.
Both sides traded charges of preparations for violence. The Defense Ministry claimed it had uncovered plans to seize the ministry, and he reinforced protection. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said force could be used to prevent provocations from ``bandits,'' the official news agency Itar-Tass reported.
Mr. Khasbulatov told reporters that if ``there is bloodshed on the streets, the president's camp will be responsible.''
But behind this bravado, the parliament is in retreat. ``The question is whether a Congress can change anything,'' says Andrei Fyodorov, an aide to Rutskoi.
He also acknowledged that the attempt to gain control over the military and security forces had failed. Now, he says, the only obstacle left is the governments of Russia's 88 regions and republics. ``The only force which can push Yeltsin is the regions,'' Mr. Fyodorov said, emerging from a meeting with Rutskoi and other senior aides. ``He can ignore this building. But how can he ignore the regions?''
The Rutskoi camp is floating a plan to have the regions make clear they will not carry out Yeltsin's proposed December parliamentary election. Instead, they will offer to hold simultaneous early elections for both president and parliament. Failure to buy this deal could accelerate the breakup of Russia as a unified state, they warn.
``If we want to keep this country united, we must find a compromise, a compromise that can be pushed by the regions,'' Fyodorov says. The liberal daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, in a survey of regional reaction, reported yesterday that the majority of the leaders in 40 regions favor simultaneous early elections. Yeltsin seemed to indirectly acknowledge this pressure yesterday when he announced an early date - June 12, 1994 - for a presidential vote.
Over the past two years of an independent Russia, the regional governments have gained greater degrees of autonomy from Moscow. The regional executives are mostly appointed by Yeltsin, but they must share power with regional soviets (councils) that have tended to be dominated by old-style bureaucrats and former Communists more sympathetic to the Supreme Soviet in Moscow.
Yeltsin was clearly wooing the regions in his Tuesday night decree, which pointedly promised to keep the local soviets in place and to form the upper house of a new parliament from self-selected representatives of the regional administration and soviets.
Yeltsin aides and parliament officials both claimed yesterday to have significant support from the regional governments. While Yeltsin has clear backing in regional administrations, many local soviets are leaning toward the parliament. Yeltsin plans to meet regional leaders on Saturday to try to win their backing.
Increasingly some regions, and particularly republics populated by ethnic minorities, are using this as an opportunity to reinforce their claim to autonomy and even sovereignty.
``We are terribly sorry, but frankly it is not our business,'' the prime minister of Tartarstan, the largest autonomous republic, told Nezavisimaya. ``Tatarstan needs to finish harvesting corn, potatoes, and beets.''