Court OKs Communist Party ban Ruling in Moscow considered mixed

December 01, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- A courtroom showdown between the Communist Party and President Boris N. Yeltsin ended in a mixed decision yesterday, throwing the party that once ruled the Soviet empire a few scraps but leaving Mr. Yeltsin's authority essentially intact.

It was an important event on the eve of a crucial legislative session in which Mr. Yeltsin will face many of the party's remnants. But it was an anticlimactic ending to what had been billed as the trial of the century.

In the end, the 13-member Russian Constitutional Court delivered a muddle-along ruling, which now contributes to the country's muddled political landscape.

The court said Mr. Yeltsin had the right to ban the Communist Party in 1991, except that local party organizations shouldn't have been banned. It said Mr. Yeltsin was right in seizing some of the party's considerable property, but not all of it -- and it left other courts to decide which property was legally taken and which wasn't.

Startled, the Communists who brought the case at first said they had lost, then later decided they had won, sort of.

Mr. Yeltsin's side more consistently maintained from the start yesterday that it had won, sort of.

"We consider the ruling to be satisfactory," said Gennady Burbulis, a presidential adviser, although it leaves "certain questions unanswered, both in legal and in political terms."

Valery Kuptsov, a Communist Party leader, declared: "From now on the party has the right to go on with its activities."

But the fate of the party, a bare remnant of its former self, wasn't really the issue in the court case. No simple court ruling could undo the reforms of the past year and restore the party to its old prominence.

Rather, the issue was the fate of Mr. Yeltsin's presidency. The court's decision was going to be either a victory or a defeat for him.

A defeat would have sent him reeling into today's opening of the Congress of People's Deputies, a conservative-dominated supreme legislature that is much agitated over Mr. Yeltsin's free market reforms.

A victory would have helped cement the somewhat reluctant political support he has gathered in the past month in anticipation of the congress.

Mr. Burbulis said he expects the ruling would have no strong effect on the congress. But now that presidential decrees have been proved constitutional, he added: "We can proceed with the reforms."

Mr. Yeltsin's decree-making power was expected to be one of the issues to be tackled by the congress, although now it may not be. His opponents have no clear goal, which works to his advantage. Some critics of the government's reform programs clearly fear each other more than they fear Mr. Yeltsin.

Last week he met in a long private session with Ruslan Khasbulatov, the speaker of the parliament and a powerful and unpredictable man. Mr. Khasbulatov does not like Mr. Yeltsin's cabinet ministers but he refrains from attacking Mr. Yeltsin himself.

After the meeting, Mr. Yeltsin shuffled some of his ministers (including Mr. Burbulis). He also fired the head of Commonwealth television, Yegor Yakovlev, a move that immediately brought down the wrath of powerful pro-reform newspaper editors.

Yesterday Mr. Yeltsin met with some of these editors, said he would transfer Mr. Yakovlev to another job, and promised to remain a staunch supporter of freedom of the press and of democracy.

The president also met yesterday with legislators from the Agrarian Union, in a further fence-mending move. He told them the government would devote 11 percent of next year's budget to agriculture, and promised farms would get a 50 percent discount for fuel and lubricants.

The congress could, in theory, undercut Mr. Yeltsin's power and bring down the government of Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar, which they threatened to do when they last met in April.

This session is supposed to last just nine days. It will be dominated, as before, by former Communists, because the congress was elected before the fall of the Soviet Union. Konstantin Borovoi, a businessman who is co-chairman of the Economic Freedom Party, said yesterday the congress "doesn't represent anyone except the elite nomenklatura" -- the former Communist Party hierarchy.

The prospect of a challenge to Mr. Yeltsin' authority was sufficient to elicit support yesterday from President Bush and President-elect Bill Clinton. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Mr. Bush felt it necessary to call Mr. Yeltsin because "he's worried about the opposition" to Mr. Yeltsin's economic and political reforms.

The timing of yesterday's decision of the Constitutional Court in Moscow also seemed affected by the convening of the congress. The judges reportedly decided to issue their opinion yesterday so as not to appear influenced by political winds.

They held, in their ruling, that the Communist Party was in fact a state structure rather than simply a political grouping -- and that therefore Mr. Yeltsin had the authority to do away with it and take its property back for the state.

One judge, Viktor Luchin, said last night that he disagreed with the ruling, and warned that it opened the way to an authoritarian regime. He said the ruling reflected Russia's political reality.

But the chief justice, Valery Zorkin, denied that the court came under political pressure to reach the decision it did.

Early on, Mr. Yeltsin's lawyers had held open the possibility that they would reveal scandalous details of the party's recent past during the hearings. In large part they did not, although they did provide some details of the Communist Party's support for sister parties in other nations.

But the case never lived up to its billing as the trial of the century, or as a second Nuremburg.

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