Russian coup plotters get amnesty from lawmakers

February 24, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The lower house of parliament set the stage yesterday for a major showdown with President Boris N. Yeltsin by declaring an amnesty for the organizers of the failed 1991 coup as well as the ringleaders of the armed uprising of last October.

The amnesty vote was virtually the first important piece of business for Russia's new legislature, and it promises to resurrect the inter-branch power struggle that Mr. Yeltsin had hoped was now behind him.

The president's aides reacted furiously to the vote in the Duma, or lower house. The amnesty resolution, which carried 252-67, does not require presidential approval to become effective.

"This confirms our fears that the [Duma] intends to engage not in drafting the laws that are so necessary for the revival of Russia but in ruinous political games, in a struggle for power," said Vyacheslav Kostikov, a spokesman for the president.

Another aide, Emil Paine, called the amnesty "an open symbolic challenge" to Mr. Yeltsin, clearly timed so that it would fall on the eve of a major address that he is scheduled to make to the parliament today -- one in which he will reportedly warn that he may need to take extraordinary measures to prevent economic collapse.

Freed under the amnesty would be such Yeltsin foes as Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of the old parliament, and Alexander Rutskoi, the former vice president, both of whom have been in Lefortovo Prison since their arrest Oct. 4.

Hard-line instigators of the October uprising, such as Ilya Konstantinov and Viktor Anpilov, would also be released.

Yegor Gaidar, the leader of the Russia's Choice reform bloc, predicted yesterday that these men would "take newly formed militant units to the streets in the next few months, and I am sure there will be renewed violence."

Some analysts speculated yesterday that as head of the executive branch Mr. Yeltsin could make it very difficult for those now in prison actually to get out.

But last night the Itar-Tass news agency reported that the chief prosecutor's office was treating the amnesty decision as valid under the new constitution and was ready to begin preparing the defendants' release as soon as the proper documents have been received from the Duma.

That could be as early as today, the report said.

Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Russian Communist Party, hailed the vote for freeing people whose only crime was that they "defended the constitution."

One Duma member covered by the amnesty, Anatoly Lukyanov, a defendant in the 1991 coup case, said the vote was "a logical step on the way to internal stability."

On the contrary, it may mark Mr. Yeltsin's return from the lethargy that seems to have afflicted him since the beginning of the year.

While the new Duma was coming under the sway of the Communists and their allies and the Cabinet was losing most of its important reformers, Mr. Yeltsin has been uncombative, reclusive, apparently apathetic.

But an early version of the speech he plans to give today, obtained by the Interfax news agency, suggests that the president may once more be getting to ready to come roaring out of his funk.

The most important parts of the draft speech are devoted to economic reform. It proposes a complete reorganization of the Central Bank, which reformers have seen as the major contributor to inflation because of its loose money policy.

The draft speech also attacks those who have made a political issue out of the failure of thousands of enterprises to pay their bills -- the "non-payment crisis."

This is so serious, according to the draft, that it may be necessary to impose "a state of economic emergency."

Mr. Yeltsin reportedly plans to declare today that he will take direct supervision of the furthering of economic reform -- with the apparent aim of putting reforms back on track despite the creation this winter of a go-slow Cabinet under Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Now, on top of all this, Mr. Yeltsin is faced with what he is likely to consider as a direct, personal assault, in the form of the amnesty resolution.

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