Fear, turmoil and a sense of Russian history Rumors fly in Moscow as Yeltsin, Duma march toward confrontation

September 04, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The capital has turned into a city of fast-moving rumor, ever-shifting political alliances and dark allusions to history as President Boris N. Yeltsin and the State Duma march steadily toward another confrontation today.

Alexander I. Lebed, one rumor goes, will be the next prime minister. He denies it. "I will never again be appointed to any office," says the former general who was recently elected governor of Krasnoyarsk. "I am sick of the idiots who have commanded me."

The Kremlin signals it is interested in reopening negotiations over a compromise with the Duma, and so much speculation arises over possible conditions that a new term emerges in the Russian language: "insidovaya informatsiya," or "inside information."

Declaring that bad experience is better than little experience, Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the capricious leader of a nationalist party, suddenly switches sides after days of swearing he won't and supports Viktor S. Chernomyrdin for prime minister.

Analysts and politicians are full of warnings, which most people ignore: It's 1917, with the Communists waiting to step into a vacuum and grab power. It's 1924, with Lenin dying and a Stalin-like figure waiting in the Moscow shadows. It's 1991, with Russia ready to fall apart just as the Soviet Union did before it.

As the rhetoric intensified, a harsh enough reality was settling in on more and more ordinary people, who usually are able to go on with their lives and ignore the political cacophony.

The official ruble rate fell to 13.5 rubles to the dollar, but at some exchanges around the city it could be found for as low as 17.4 to the dollar. Only a month ago it was 6.2 to the dollar.

Depositors got more ominous news about their savings accounts. The Central Bank ordered six large failing banks to freeze accounts for two months and allow their customers to transfer deposits to the state Sberbank.

Repayment would be guaranteed, but no withdrawals could be made until after Nov. 15. By then, many people fear, the ruble could be worth even less, wiping out their savings.

Prices continued to rise, and shoppers continued to stockpile food. Residents of Nizhny Novgorod reported difficulty finding salt and macaroni. Butter supplies appeared low in Moscow.

"It is difficult to avoid a panic because every person has to go shopping every day and look at the changing price tags," said Gennady Seleznyov, chairman of the Duma. "There is no confidence in the financial system and the banking system because a merry-go-round is happening there, too."

And, despite reports that the Duma and Yeltsin aides were trying to reach a political deal, Duma leaders predicted that deputies would reject Chernomyrdin again in a second vote planned for today.

One of Yeltsin's former aides was not optimistic about the prospects for a deal, saying that the parties were too antagonistic to agree on anything.

"What is missing is the mutual accord of the parties, irrespective of the content of the agreement," said Georgy A. Satarov, a former aide to Yeltsin and president of the Information Science for Democracy fund. "We have full resistance by all possible parties."

The political and economic crisis that has grown, unabated, since Yeltsin dismissed the government of Prime Minister Sergei V. Kiriyenko on Aug. 23, showed no signs of containment yesterday. And a poll, conducted Saturday and published yesterday, reported that 67 percent of the 1,500 respondents blamed Russia's problems on Yeltsin and thought he should resign.

The Duma has been trying to hurry such a process by drawing up charges of impeachment against Yeltsin. Deputies hope to finish the case by the weekend. If impeachment is under way, the Duma cannot be dissolved for three months.

"We take everything into account," Seleznyov said. "People in the State Duma are not naive children."

Yeltsin has used the threat of dissolution to great effect in other battles with the Duma. If his nominee for prime minister is rejected three times, the president can dissolve the Duma and call new elections three months later.

There are other complications. A little-noticed law requires that parties register a year in advance of elections in order to take part. Most parties registered last spring, and would not be able to take part in any elections until April.

Despite all indications to the contrary, some politicians still hoped that the Duma and president might agree on a prime minister before dissolution, which could start a chain of events with unpredictable consequences.

And they were still able to laugh at Zhirinovsky, as he made his startling turnaround and announced that the 50 deputies who belonged to his party would vote for Chernomyrdin after all.

"Bad experience is also experience," Zhirinovsky said at a news conference yesterday. "The surgeon who has killed 200 patients might be successful on the 201st."

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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