Yeltsin supporters refuse to fight


September 22, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Inside Parliament early today, Russia's vice president tried to seize the nation's presidency while outside surly supporters built barricades and formed defense regiments against attack.

President Boris N. Yeltsin drove off to the countryside, ignoring his vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, trying to usurp the presidency. Mr. Yeltsin didn't even bother sending troops to the dismissed but defiant Parliament.

Vladimir Shumeiko, a vice premier who had been suspended on charges of corruption, but returned to office yesterday under Mr. Yeltsin's wing, was full of disdain for the members of Parliament.

He called it a "self-siege," and said: "No one is going to attack it."

So several thousand people gathered outside Parliament had to be content with waving their red Communist flags in the night breeze rather than before tanks or troops.

Except for the ugly behavior of some of the participants, the events at the Parliament had an air of the absurd.

Building barricades

The would-be defenders of the Parliament gathered metal rods from a nearby construction site and poked them outward through their battlements as if they were bayonets. They blocked off the road next to the parliament building. They piled up pieces of brick and concrete -- in neat stacks ready for throwing.

"Borya drank too much again," said one man working on the barricades, using a diminutive for Mr. Yeltsin, "so now we have to do this construction work. Much construction is done at night in this country."

Resentment against the West quickly surfaced. "It's your fault," another man told an American woman. His partner scowled at the same woman. "I'd rather die myself than let you live."

The defenders were a motley assortment of thuggish-looking men in black leather jackets and old camouflage along with worn men and women who had lost all sense of security and hope with the end of communism.

The Parliament building -- known as the White House -- was guarded more officially by numerous policemen who seemed to be doing their best to maintain order. At the doors of the building, police with bullet-proof vests stood watch. Those inside were heavily armed; outside no guns were in evidence.

President Yeltsin had issued a decree dissolving Parliament. Parliament fought back with its own decrees and early today had only itself to shout at. Mr. Yeltsin ignored them.

In fact, the members of Parliament who gathered here to declare Mr. Yeltsin unqualified for office and accept Mr. Rutskoi in his place were mainly hard-liners themselves, and they barely had a quorum.

No leaders of the Parliament's democratic forces were present. An aide to one democratic leader said the liberal members had gone home, unwilling to appear to collaborate with their conservative colleagues.

Speaking of victory

Even before their vote, the deputies were referring to Mr. Yeltsin as the ex-president.

"Let us hope the ex-president gives up his post peacefully," said Igor M. Bratishev, a deputy from Rostov-on-Don.

"If any armed forces support him, the conflict could grow into a massacre."

Twenty-three minutes after the Parliament convened, Mr. Rutskoi had been declared president and was holding up a paperback copy of the constitution, administering the oath of office to himself just as Mr. Yeltsin had done two years ago.

Mr. Rutskoi, a decorated Afghan war hero, immediately declared Mr. Yeltsin's decrees invalid and vowed to uphold the constitution.

What was the date?

"I take upon myself all responsibility for the security of our citizens," he said, and announced that he was in charge as of Sept. 21. But it was past midnight and reporters in the balcony shouted a correction. "Sept. 22," they said.

Then Ruslan Khasbulatov, the parliament speaker and Mr. Yeltsin's most impassioned enemy, appeared in a black shirt, black suit and gray tie and called the moment tragic.

"We tried to prevent this," he said. "I didn't expect we would have to live through such a difficult moment. It is necessary that the world community properly understands the tragedy that occurred here."

No one knew what was going on, but the conservatives proclaimed victory even before their vote. "Yeltsin has no chance of success," said Vladimir Isakov, an outspoken Yeltsin opponent. "I'm quite sure he did this because he decided to give up, and he shut the door as loudly as possible."

No bloodshed wanted

Viktor Anpilov, a Communist supporter, said he could have predicted Mr. Yeltsin's action. "It's not a surprise for me," he said. "But I don't want blood here in Moscow like the blood being shed in Georgia. My hope is that ordinary honest working people are occupying the city councils throughout Russia, and maybe now in this hour the red flags are being raised all over Russia.

"Of course I'm happy at this. It's my flag," he said.

"The people are disillusioned," said Iona Andronov, an arch-conservative. "They won't support Yeltsin."

Mr. Andronov said Mr. Yeltsin was driven to extreme measures by the poor state of the economy: "He had to establish his rule as quickly as possible to suppress democracy." The conservatives quickly assumed the role of preserving democracy against what they described as Mr. Yeltsin's coup d'etat. Mr. Andronov complained that all the special government telephones were cut off at Parliament last night.

In August, 1991, the atmosphere was quite different here. Then conservatives briefly toppled Mikhail S. Gorbachev, then president of the Soviet Union, and Mr. Yeltsin fought against them from the White House -- with Mr. Khasbulatov and Mr. Rutskoi on his side.

Then, government tanks were pointed at the White House. Volunteers constructed barricades, certain that tanks were about to roll over them at any moment.

The feeling was one of good cheer. People shared their food and spoke kindly to strangers. All that had disappeared last night.

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