MORE than four months after political clashes in Moscow's streets left hundreds dead and wounded, the men charged with instigating that bloody confrontation walked free on Saturday, unrepentant and apparently eager to resume the battle where it left off.
Former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi emerged from the gates of Moscow's Lefortovo Prison clad in the guise of a Russian martyr and patriot, proudly wearing the beard of a political prisoner and the bemedaled uniform of a Soviet Air Force hero. Already, Mr. Rutskoi's aides described him yesterday as ready for another run at the presidency.
The weekend's events by no means foretell an immediate return to the near-civil war of last fall. But they do make clear how far President Boris Yeltsin's political power has fallen since Oct. 4, when he crushed the parliament rebels' armed uprising.
Despite a new Constitution that gives him great power and legitimacy over his foes, who claimed to defend the old Soviet-era system, Mr. Yeltsin was able to do nothing to halt the release of those arrested after last October's events. (Western aid to Russia, Page 8.)
The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, used its constitutional authority last week to pass an amnesty that included the 12 men on trial for the attempted hard-line Communist coup in August 1991 and the 17 men arrested for instigating the fighting last October.
A last-minute Yeltsin attempt to block the amnesty failed on Saturday when Russia's chief prosecutor, despite a shared opposition to the parliament's decision, resigned in acknowledgement that the legislature indeed had the authority to act.
``This amnesty is a complete de-legitimation of the existing power, the president, and the entire regime,'' comments Yeltsin adviser Andranik Migranian. And by their release and refusal to accept their guilt, the men who insisted last year that they were only defending constitutional order have acquired a new legitimacy of their own, he says with concern.
``As soon as the coup leaders are free from jail, they will regroup and stage a new, better-organized coup against the legal government,'' reformist Yegor Gaidar told a German newspaper yesterday. He warned that Rutskoi and his allies would try to ``use violence to set up a nationalist-communist government.''
The president is clearly anticipating a new challenge to his authority. ``The Russian president preserves the right to act in accordance with his constitutional powers in the illegal situation that has emerged,'' said Yeltsin spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov on Saturday.
But despite the tough words, there is no denying that Yeltsin is much weaker than he was last September, when he dissolved the old parliament. Since then he has suffered the unexpected victory of Communists, nationalists, and other critics of the government's reform policies in last December's parliamentary elections. The government, under Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, has already embarked on a clearly conservative economic policy course.
Duma chairman and former Communist Ivan Rybkin has tried to dampen fears of renewed confrontation, depicting the amnesty as a move toward reconciliation. Some have even suggested that the amnesty was in the president's own interests, putting aside the embarrassment of the long-dragged out 1991 coup trial and voiding the need for the Duma's own pending investigation of the October events.
Mr. Rybkin, who hails from the Communist-allied Agrarian Party, appeared to share fears, however, that some of the men released from their prison cells may not have conciliation on their minds.
``The path of political street-fighting ... is unacceptable,'' Rybkin told the official Itar-Tass news agency Saturday. ``If anyone wants to return to this path, he can be sure the State Duma, together with the president, will be able to put such people ... in their places.
``Those who do not want to take a common path had better stay at home in their bedroom slippers,'' Rybkin said.
Among those who did not take this advice was extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who appeared with some of his followers outside Lefortovo on Saturday to greet the released men. His Liberal Democratic Party was a main sponsor of the amnesty bill, despite the fact that last October Mr. Zhirinovsky had backed Yeltsin's dissolution of parliament.
``Right now Rybkin is very moderate, and he is trying to compromise,'' Migranian notes. ``But the Communists, Zhirinovsky - they would like to have more tension because they think this will create more options to strengthen their position, to come to power in this or that way.''