Leaders of uprising released in Moscow

February 27, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The leaders of last October's bloody uprising walked free from Lefortovo Prison yesterday, smiling to the cheers of their supporters and ushering in a new phase of heightened political anxiety.

Alexander Rutskoi, who once proclaimed himself president of Russia while announcing the resurrection of the Soviet Union, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, a former professor who urged soldiers to attack the Kremlin to depose Boris N. Yeltsin, stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine and immediately seized the attention of the nation.

They were joined by five other leaders of the parliamentary rebellion, which was eventually put down by tank fire and a military assault on the Russian White House, with an official death toll of 142.

President Yeltsin tried to stop their release yesterday and failed.

The chief prosecutor, Alexei Kazannik, said he couldn't refuse to sign the release order, as Mr. Yeltsin asked him to, but couldn't bring himself to do it, either, and resigned instead.

One of his deputies signed the order in his place.

Ivan Rybkin, the head of the Duma, or lower house of the new parliament, welcomed the men's release, which came about through an amnesty declared by the Duma on Thursday. But he warned them nonetheless not to get mixed up in rebellion again.

"Street fights are unacceptable. The president and I will not allow it," said Mr. Rybkin, who in fact is in determined opposition to Mr. Yeltsin.

If any of the freed rebels chooses not to work within the new political order, he said, "then let them sit at home in their slippers."

Mr. Rutskoi left the prison in his general's uniform, replete with a newly grown full beard that gives him a certain resemblance to the last czar, Nicholas II.

He waved but said only, "I am with you and will always be with you" and then was whisked away in a sparkling Mercedes. Later, in a brief and reluctant interview with a local radio station, which reached him at home, he was asked if the release from Lefortovo signified a return to politics.

"No," he replied, "it's a return to the people."

But Mr. Rutskoi has been touted as a possible leader of the opposition and a likely presidential candidate. He was, after all, the designated president of the parliamentary holdouts last October. Yet in some ways it is a very different Russia that he stepped out into yesterday.

In December voters approved a new constitution and elected the new parliament. Its leaders, among them Mr. Rybkin and the Communist Party chief, Gennady Zyuganov, have been determined foes of Mr. Yeltsin but have sought to carve out a legitimate and legal role for the Duma.

They have set upon a course of assuming power through peaceful means, but now they have let loose a group of men -- including such extreme hard-liners as Viktor Anpilov and Ilya Konstantinov -- who sought to overthrow Mr. Yeltsin through force of arms.

Yesterday, Mr. Anpilov said he intended to go straight to work "agitating" among "workers' collectives," without any apparent regard for parliament.

Mr. Konstantinov reportedly plans to revive the extremist National Salvation Front, which was banned by Mr. Yeltsin.

After submitting his resignation, Mr. Kazannik said he considered the amnesty a "dark page" in Russian history.

"It will free unrepentant organizers, instigators and active leaders of large-scale disturbances," he said. "They include plenty of people guilty of murder, pogroms and pillage."

Vyacheslav Kostikov, Mr. Yeltsin's chief spokesman, said, "People who were involved in bloodshed and who were ready to push Russia into a bloody civil war were freed without trial. The responsibility for this act of moral violence fully rests on the state Duma.

"It is an outrage upon justice," he said. He then warned that Mr. Yeltsin reserved the right to act in accordance with his constitutional powers.

Mr. Kostikov did not elaborate. But, under the constitution, Mr. Yeltsin does have the right to dismiss the parliament and call for new elections.

It would appear, however, that doing so would play right into Mr. Rutskoi's hands, giving him a platform upon which to campaign.

To be sure, the current leaders of the Duma are not the only Yeltsin foes who distrust Mr. Rutskoi. The former vice president vowed to defend the White House to the death last October but emerged unscathed from the assault even as dozens of his supporters gave up their lives.

Some believe he betrayed what was essentially an unarmed mob by inciting them to attack the Ostankino television center Oct. 3, where they were met by automatic gunfire.

It was a strange scene in some ways at Lefortovo yesterday. A few hundred supporters stood in the cold with a variety of red banners, shouting, "Rutskoi -- president! Rutskoi -- president!"

When Mr. Khasbulatov appeared, he looked drawn and quite a bit less triumphant than Mr. Rutskoi.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the extreme nationalist who scored an astonishing success in the December elections, supported the amnesty and was at Lefortovo to see and be seen.

L "Rely on us," he said to the newly free men. "We will help."

But he also said it was clear that Mr. Rutskoi will be a presidential candidate at the next elections -- and thus his political opponent.

As for Mr. Yeltsin, he was out of sight all day. Clearly, it was a major blunder to try to stop the release, compounded by his failure to do so. Mr. Kazannik said that as distasteful as the amnesty was, he and his aides could find no legal reason to block it.

Yet even as Mr. Rutskoi and the others were emerging, a Yeltsin representative was meeting with Mr. Rybkin to try to find a compromise solution, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Neither expected that the release would happen so soon, according to the presidential assistant, Georgy Satarov.

Late in the day, the Kremlin announced that Mr. Kazannik's resignation had been accepted and that Alexei Ilyushenko, head of the president's staffing department, had been nominated to succeed him.

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