Russia's version of high crimes

Obscure Communist heads panel trying to impeach Yeltsin

January 19, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Vadim Filimonov might be thought of as the Henry Hyde of Russian politics. He's the man who has to handle the impeachment of a president.

Here in Russia, that's not a high-profile job. Since July, Filimonov's committee in the State Duma has been dutifully meeting every week or so to consider charges against Boris N. Yeltsin, and hardly anyone pays it much attention.

Certainly Yeltsin doesn't. He's too busy trying to persuade people he'll live out his term.

The lack of interest is matched only by the gravity of the charges.

In Washington, the issue might be perjury or it might be sex, but neither of those would stand up for long in Moscow.

Lying under oath about a sexual affair would not, by any stretch, rise to the level of an impeachable offense under the Russian constitution.

So how about treason? Or maybe genocide?

Those are articles one and five, respectively, before Filimonov's committee. Two through four have to do with lesser charges -- launching an illegal war that killed 100,000 people, sending tanks to fire on the parliament, and destroying the military capacity of the Russian Federation.

"I'm pretty sure of the juridical soundness of the charges against the Russian president," said Filimonov, who is a Communist and a professor of criminology, but not much when it comes to stirring phrases.

But he acknowledges that he is one of the few people who believe that it is politically possible to effect Yeltsin's removal from office -- though even he has his doubts.

The Russian constitution is so heavily stacked in the president's favor that it would take a national stampede to get him out of the Kremlin.

So be it, says Filimonov. If it's going to happen, it has to start somewhere.

Filimonov tends to sprinkle his conversation with legalisms, yet the impeachment effort against Yeltsin is grounded in the traditional Russian approach to criminal proceedings, where what's central is not a reverence for law but for power.

Two of the charges against Yeltsin -- stemming from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the battle with parliament in 1993 -- involve actions that happened before the current constitution was adopted.

Just technicalities, said Filimonov. "This is not an obstacle."

When the point was put to Filimonov that, in the end, a Duma vote on impeaching Yeltsin will come down to a political decision and not a legal one, he was stumped for an answer because he didn't see the difference.

"I don't understand your meaning," he said. The legal is the political.

Gavriil Popov, the former mayor of Moscow, recently returned from the United States and tried to explain to the readers of Obshchaya Gazeta why Americans take perjury, even by a president, so seriously.

"For an American, abiding by the law is something basic," he wrote. "There was no state there that ensured its power with fear and force. There was respect for the law instead. If this should disappear from the American way of life the whole edifice of American democracy will be undermined.

"This," he said, "is the watershed that divides Russian and American mentality."

It's debatable whether the Duma has the law on its side, but it's clear that it doesn't hold the political power required. That's why it is unlikely that Yeltsin will be removed from office, even though he faces far more serious charges than Clinton does.

Filimonov is hoping that as the impeachment process continues, public opinion will be aroused to the extent that Yeltsin's foes gain the upper hand.

If the public becomes angry enough, he said, that will sway parliament. He also thinks it will sway the courts, which must review an impeachment motion and which can be counted on to pay close attention to political power.

That could take awhile, though.

Filimonov's committee, established in July after 217 members of the Duma requested that it consider charges against Yeltsin, has already endorsed four charges:

Treason, for his role in the decision to break up the Soviet Union in December 1991.

Organizing murder, for the assault on the previous parliament in October 1993.

Abuse of power, for launching the war in Chechnya in 1994.

Disorganization of the army, for allowing it to fall into decrepitude.

The fifth charge, still being considered, accuses Yeltsin of the genocide of the Russian people.

Filimonov said he believes the committee will have a report ready by next month. The full Duma will have to vote, which will trigger a review by two different courts. Then, the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, which is stocked with Yeltsin supporters, will also have to endorse the charges by a two-thirds vote for the president to be removed.

"The chances of this happening are not so big," Filimonov said. "But we think they do exist."

Pub Date: 1/19/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.