ANGRY over the Kremlin's economic policies and the way it bungled last week's hostage crisis, Russia's parliament yesterday overwhelmingly passed a vote of no-confidence in the government.
The unprecedented vote of 241 to 72 in the 450-seat State Duma (lower house of parliament) is nonbinding. But the motion reflects the parliament's widespread disillusionment with the government, especially with ministers appointed by President Boris Yeltsin. It could also presage a major shake-up in Russia's political establishment.
While more than 100 deputies have signed a Communist Party resolution demanding Mr. Yeltsin's impeachment, impeaching the president is virtually impossible under the Constitution. A no-confidence vote is the only realistic way parliament can show its opposition to Yeltsin and his power base.
Virtually all the major political parties except the reformist Russia's Choice parliamentary bloc and the pro-Yeltsin PRES bloc supported the no-confidence vote. And the vote was probably not aimed directly at Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who gained the national spotlight when he negotiated the release last weekend of the 1,000-plus hostages held captive by Chechen gunmen in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk.
Observers say the motion is probably targeted at the three "power ministers" - Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Interior Minister Viktor Yerin, and Sergei Stepashin, head of the Federal Security Service - all of whom were appointed by Yeltsin.
The three ministers have been held responsible for much of the bloodshed in Budennovsk.
While a total of 97 people died in the five-day crisis, roughly 30 people were killed when Mr. Yerin ordered Russian troops to storm the hospital where the captives were being held.
Before the vote, Mr. Chernomyrdin expressed confidence that Russia would stick to a course of economic and political stabilization. "Some people want great upheavals. But there will not be great upheavals in Russia under any circumstances," Chernomyrdin told deputies, rephrasing a famous quote by Pyotr Stolypin, Czar Nicholas II's reformist prime minister who was murdered during his term in office.
Chernomyrdin, who like Stolypin is also considered a centrist reformer, has been pegged as a potential presidential candidate in 1996 elections.
Yeltsin's own political support, already low, is ebbing further in the wake of the hostage crisis and six-month war in separatist Chechnya.
Yegor Gaider, head of Russia's Choice and former acting prime minister, refused to support the vote of no confidence because he feared a worse government would take over. But he said yesterday he would ask Yeltsin to resign if the three power ministers were not fired.
"The executive power has become dangerous for our country now because of its helplessness and incompetence," Sergei Glazyev, head of the conservative Democratic Party of Russia faction and the initiator of the no-confidence vote, told deputies.
Under the Constitution, the Russian president can ignore a successful no-confidence vote. But if the decision is confirmed within three months, Yeltsin has to either replace the government or dissolve parliament.
The parliament has to stand for reelection in December, so Yeltsin will probably not risk dissolving it, as such a move would only bring back memories of the violent stand-off between him and his former parliament in October 1993.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday in the Kremlin, where security has been beefed up in the light of the Budennovsk hostage crisis, Yeltsin brushed aside questions about the no-confidence vote - and made no mention of possible impeachment proceedings.
"Don't push me to make any preliminary decisions. When there is a vote, I'll say my piece," he said, smiling broadly. "And then things will be like I say."