MOSCOW -- Is this a trial or a political convention?
The long-awaited showdown over Boris N. Yeltsin's banning of the Communist Party opened in Russia's Constitutional Court yesterday, a solemn event that attracted lobbyists, hangers-on, politicians looking for an audience, American university professors doing the same, elderly red-flag-waving demonstrators, legions of analysts and gangs of reporters. They gathered around TV sets, they gathered around each other, they gathered around the lobby bar (beer only).
Thirteen judges in dignified robes sat behind black tables, listening to testimony that sounded more like floor debate.
Who's winning? Who's got the votes?
This excursion into jurisprudence began when 37 pro-Communist legislators sued Mr. Yeltsin for banning the party and seizing its considerable assets. The case went to the newly formed Constitutional Court, which now has before it an issue that could determine the fate of the Russian government.
There are also a few quirks.
For instance, liberals have countersued, asking the court to find that the Communist Party was a "rogue" organization that in effect deserved to be banned.
The court said yesterday it wouldn't rule on that particular point, but it agreed to hear evidence on it anyway. Why not? Mr. Yeltsin's side has suggested that they've found an awful lot of dirt on the party that just might come out in the open if need be.
One witness, Dmitri Stepanov, was told he couldn't testify again until the end of the case, because he was disrespectful.
Draped on the wall behind the judges is a Russian flag. Above it is a Soviet seal, complete with hammer and sickle. All 13 judges are former Communists, because until two years ago it was impossible to be a judge in this country without being a member of the party.
One of the strategies of those who brought the case is to plead that in the post-Communist era the rule of law must be obeyed above all, and that Mr. Yeltsin acted above the law in banning the party. That this reverence for the law represents a fundamental shift in the legal philosophy of one-time Communists is of course beside the point.
The country is faced with a stark choice: "Either violence or law," said Aleksandr Yakovlev, a historian, outside the courtroom yesterday. Upholding Mr. Yeltsin's arbitrary actions would open a "Pandora's box," he said.
This strategy of sorrowfully appealing to one's higher, law-abiding instincts didn't always get played out in the courtroom, though. Pro-Communist witnesses used the word "comrade" a lot. Mr. Stepanov testified that the Communists would very much like to return to power -- and would do so through a coup if necessary.
He talked about how much he and his allies would like to "take a grip on power in the country."
Comments like that prompted Sergei Shakhrai, leading Mr. Yeltsin's defense, to suggest that his opponents were making his case for him.
The case is expected to go on -- and on. In the meantime, legislators and witnesses station themselves outside the courtroom, giving their spin on events for any who would listen, dragging on cigarettes and offering inside dope, winking here and nudging there and making allies -- and who knows whether the whole thing will simply take on a life of its own?
One man who will not emerge a winner is Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The Communists bitterly accuse the last Soviet president of betraying them. The democrats accuse him of doing nothing of the sort.