Impeaching Russia's president

Though unlikely to remove Boris Yeltsin, charges before ParliamentApril 15 reflect profound changes.

Amid declarations that are all too familiar to Americans, Russia has embarked on its own formal impeachment process, officially placing the topic on the parliamentary agenda.

As in the US version, few give it much chance of ultimate success. Also as in the US, the process could dramatically reshape Russia's political landscape by the time it has run its course. Unlike the US, Russia has never before had a system under which top leaders can be held accountable before the legislature.

"Impeachment is the most volatile wild card on the political scene today," says Sergei Markov, director of the independent Institute for Political Research in Moscow. "It is a calculated ploy, driven mainly by the interests of the opposition, but is already deeply affecting everyone's expectations."

The sheer difficulty of the procedure, combined with the starkly political nature of the accusations, has led many observers to dismiss the impeachment move as a Communist-run sideshow with no lasting relevance. But that may be about to change.

The Duma, or lower house of parliament, convened a special commission last June to explore charges that Boris Yeltsin - Russia's president since 1991 - has criminally led the country astray and should be removed from office.

On March 16, the Duma set April 15 as the date to kick off debate on the commission's five-part indictment of Mr. Yeltsin. A vote is expected a week or two later.

The indictment charges the president with illegally conspiring to destroy the Soviet Union in 1991; overthrowing the constitutional order and violently dispersing the elected parliament in 1993; launching a two-year civil war in Chechnya that cost tens of thousands of lives; undermining Russia's national defense by ruining its armed forces; and committing genocide against the Russian people by pursuing market reforms that led to falling birthrates and a plunging life expectancy.

"These charges are all extremely serious," says Vadim Filimonov, the commission's Communist chairman. "The underlying issues here have nothing to do with political revenge and everything to do with making a president accountable under the system."

Under the 1993 Constitution - authored by Yeltsin himself - impeaching a president is a daunting task. First he must be indicted for "high treason or another grave crime" by a two-thirds vote in the Duma. The charges then must be upheld by the Constitutional Court, Russia's highest, and, within three months, endorsed by a two-thirds vote in the Federation Council, parliament's upper house.

The court is packed with Yeltsin appointees, and the council is dominated by regional leaders who are generally loyal to the Kremlin.

No 'frivolous business'

"Considering that an American president was nearly impeached for telling a few white lies about his sex life, this cannot be treated as a frivolous business," says Alexei Chesnakov, an analyst with the independent Center for Political Trends in Moscow. "These charges express the political divisions that have tortured and paralyzed this country since the breakup of the Soviet Union," he says. "It is a very harsh judgment on the entire Yeltsin era but, unfortunately, one which almost all Russians at least partially share."

Wag the dog scenario?

The item condemning Yeltsin for starting the war in Chechnya - which he did without the consent of parliament - appears almost certain to gain the requisite two-thirds support in the Duma, analysts say.

Some even suggest that recent threats of renewed warfare in the region, triggered by the kidnapping of a top Russian official by Chechen gunmen, may have been engineered by the Kremlin in order to preempt the issue.

According to Russia's Constitution, the president cannot dissolve parliament while the impeachment process is under way, a fact that parliamentarians are very aware of. Looming elections in December are also a factor.

"President Yeltsin and the government are extremely unpopular," says Markov. "The Duma has done little to address the population's economic pain and this is an election year. So the opposition obviously wants to use impeachment to show voters how they have been fighting, actively and uncompromisingly, against the Kremlin."

But commission chairman Mr. Filimonov insists that whatever the short-term political uses and ultimate fate of this impeachment process, it has already served a crucial purpose.

"At the very least, we have elaborated the procedures for impeaching a president, and this will become an established fact of our parliamentary system," he says. "It's one of the most practical steps this parliament has ever taken."

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