By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — The Budyonnovsk hostage crisis soon merged into the most ominous constitutional stand-off in Russia since October 1993. The political battle opened up on June 21 when the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, voted by 241 to 72 to express no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Communists, Agrarians and other opponents of the government's social and economic policies united with liberals alienated by the regime's handling of the hostage crisis and the Chechnya war.
But under the constitution drawn up by President Boris Yeltsin late in 1993, and ratified by a referendum which political scientists have concluded was rigged, the president can ignore a vote of no confidence unless it is repeated within three months. Even then, an outrageous provision allows the president a choice between dismissing the government and sacking the parliament instead, calling fresh parliamentary elections.
Due to face elections in December in any case, many legislators who voted for the no-confidence motion regarded the whole exercise as purely symbolic, an expression of indignation that was not remotely intended to spark an all-in political brawl. The most that any of Yeltsin's critics in the parliament hoped seriously to achieve was evidently to force the sacking of the so-called "power ministers" — defence minister Pavel Grachev, interior minister Viktor Yerin and security minister Sergei Stepashin.
Not for the first time, however, Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin showed themselves to be intolerant of any opposition. On June 22 Chernomyrdin struck back, demanding that the parliament pledge its support for the government or face almost immediate dissolution. The prime minister had discovered a constitutional provision that could be interpreted as enabling him to demand a vote of confidence. If this motion were put and lost, the president would have the right to dismiss the parliament.
True, Yeltsin hinted that one or more of the "power ministers" might be dismissed. Still, the parliamentarians found themselves in an unenviable predicament. If they tried to evade Chernomyrdin's challenge, the suspicion of many Russians that the deputies lacked political backbone would be confirmed.
Pressing ahead with the attack on the government would not be easy either. If the parliament were dissolved early in July, elections would be held in October, too soon to allow any but the largest and best-organised parties to mount meaningful campaigns.
Opposition parliamentarians also had to consider how developments in the economy were likely to affect the elections. The fragile, largely illusory stabilisation during the spring and summer was unlikely to last until December. But it might, conceivably, still be in place in October, buoying the vote for pro-government candidates.
"This is a provocation by Viktor Chernomyrdin in order to get rid of the duma", Democratic Party fraction leader Sergei Glazyev reportedly declared.
The deputies pressed ahead. A decision was made to hold a special session of the parliament on July 1 to consider Chernomyrdin's demand. Votes were taken to demand the sacking of the ministers seen as especially responsible for the Chechnya war and the Budyonnovsk debacle: Grachev, Yerin and nationalities minister Nikolai Yegorov. A full-scale constitutional clash seemed in prospect.
But in the days that followed, the rhetoric from the president's office changed abruptly. The notes of aggression died away, replaced by promises of reconciliation. Yeltsin began individual consultations with parliamentary fraction leaders.
Various reasons can be suggested why Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin let slip their chance to send the current parliament into oblivion. The most obvious is the fear in business circles that a constitutional showdown would send the rickety economy into another downward spiral.
Also, early elections threw up problems for the government and its supporters. Pravda reported on June 27 that if the election were held before December, Chernomyrdin's newly formed electoral bloc "Our Home — Russia" would be legally prevented from submitting a slate for the half of the duma seats to be filled by proportional representation. (New legislation states that electoral movements must be registered six months before elections take place.)
For a "party of power", problems of this kind are not insurmountable. But government leaders may well have decided that the dangers of early elections were unacceptable in any case. There are only three parties capable of running election campaigns at short notice: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, its allies of the Agrarian Party and "Our Home — Russia". Early elections would stand a high chance of returning a Communist-Agrarian majority, which Yeltsin would consider intolerable.
As this prospect began to sink in, the resolve of liberal and centrist deputies to continue defying the government weakened. Chernomyrdin indicated that if the parliament moved another motion of no confidence, and if it were lost, he would withdraw his demand for an explicit vote of approval.
Then on June 27 the Agrarian Party — based in the "rural nomenklatura" of administrators of former state and collective farms — broke ranks. Agrarian Party chief Mikhail Lapshin told journalists that this time, his party's 50 deputies would not support a no-confidence motion.
According to the Moscow daily Segodnya, Chernomyrdin had promised leaders of the party that the government would soon adopt a special resolution on overcoming the effects of the drought which has damaged crops in much of rural Russia, and that the authorities would meet the demand of the rural lobby for indexation of grain prices.
The opposition of the farm managers promptly crumbled. This ended any likelihood that a further motion of no confidence might gain the necessary absolute majority in the 450-seat legislature.
Yeltsin now has a free hand to deal with the "power ministers" as he likes. Rubbing salt into the wounds of the parliamentarians, he has made it clear that there will be no immediate cabinet changes.
The parliament's vote of no confidence thus finished up reinforcing the lesson that through bullying, judiciously bestowed gifts and a constitution that mocks "separation of powers", Yeltsin remains able to crush opposition from the legislature. But that is not to say that the regime's position is strong.
According to a poll for the television current affairs program Itogi, Yeltsin's public confidence rating currently stands at 6%. Chernomyrdin is somewhat more popular, but the government camp will have to resort to desperate and risky manoeuvres to avoid an overwhelmingly hostile parliament following the December elections. The political crisis of late June is therefore unlikely to be the year's last.