MOSCOW -- Russia's constitutional court yesterday officially entered the desperate political struggle threatening to destroy the nation.
While President Boris N. Yeltsin mourned his mother and his parliamentary enemies talked about setting up their own television station, the court debated who was on the right side of the law.
The court decided early today that Mr. Yeltsin had violated the constitution, but deleted a recommendation that this amounted to grounds for impeachment, Interfax news agency said.
"The possibility of compromise still exists," Valery Zorkin, chairman of the court, said at an evening news conference, "because when the possibility is exhausted, war could begin."
Thus the third branch of government, the judiciary, joined the battle to determine what kind of nation Russia will become.
Not taking sides
Mr. Zorkin, head of the 13-member court, sternly refuted accusations that he had taken sides instead of remaining neutral in the escalating political battle between the executive branch of government led by Mr. Yeltsin and the legislative branch led by Ruslan Khasbulatov.
"We have been blamed for taking the side of parliament," said Mr. Zorkin, who looked tired and tense. "But the constitutional court is not in Khasbulatov's pocket."
On Sunday, the parliament asked the court to decide whether Mr. Yeltsin had overstepped his constitutional bounds Saturday when he told the nation he was assuming virtually unlimited power.
The president said he was taking power until after an April 25 referendum asking Russians to vote for or against him.
If the court decides that Mr. Yeltsin has violated the constitution, his oath of office or Russian laws, the parliament could convene its parent body -- the Congress of People's Deputies -- and begin impeachment proceedings.
After Mr. Yeltsin's televised address Saturday, Mr. Zorkin told a news conference, "The president has assumed the role of an absolute ruler. This is an attempt at a coup d'etat. . . . It is regrettable and tragic."
Yesterday, Vyacheslav Kostikov, Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, charged that Mr. Zorkin already had made a political rather than a legal decision.
The legal battle that began yesterday could have enormous consequences, even plunging Russia into civil war.
Legally, the argument is about a strong presidential system vs. a strong parliamentary system. But what everyone here talks about is just how democratic and free of the past Russia will become.
Mr. Yeltsin represents the people rushing to market reforms. His opponents in the parliament represent the people who fear those reforms and want them to come slower and with less economic pain.
Man in the middle
And in the middle stands Valery Zorkin, who says he represents only the law.
While Mr. Yeltsin has the task of building a new nation from the wreckage of the old, Mr. Zorkin has the job of finding a place for the law in the new order.
Mr. Zorkin, a slight, shy and somewhat rumpled 50-year-old judge, is supposed to create the rule of law in a nation where it always has been little more than a tool designed for the convenience of those in power.
The constitutional court was created by Mr. Yeltsin and parliament in October 1991, in the last days of the Soviet Union.
The parliament voted on Mr. Zorkin and the 12 other judges, then gave them lifetime appointments and a series of perquisites including apartments, chauffeured cars and salaries as high as the president's.
Mr. Zorkin, appointed chairman, has proved to be a judge who jumps into the law with both feet, rather than let it come to him.
He eagerly accepts television invitations and comments on all sorts of matters, those before his court as well as those that are not.
He has criticized Mr. Yeltsin's policies, saying they are impoverishing the nation.
In December, he threatened to impeach both Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Khasbulatov if they failed to resolve differences that were pushing Russia close to disintegration.
Mr. Zorkin helped them reach a compromise -- one that eventually fell apart and led to the current crisis.
Question of legitimacy
Mr. Zorkin has dismissed arguments that Mr. Yeltsin has greater legitimacy than the Congress, an argument advanced because Mr. Yeltsin is the only popularly elected president in Russia's history.
The parliament was elected in March 1990 when the Communist Party was the only legal party. The constitution was written in 1978, during the rule of Leonid I. Brezhnev.
Mr. Zorkin also dismisses arguments that the constitution fails to clearly delineate executive and legislative powers.
"It is not the constitution that is at fault," he told parliament, "but the ambitions of officials, especially in the executive. What is this but an attempt at an unconstitutional coup like the one against Gorbachev?"
Yesterday evening, taking a break in court deliberations to read a statement to reporters, Mr. Zorkin said his comments about Mr. Yeltsin so far have not displayed any bias.