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Lawmakers take steps to impeach Yeltsin Military monitors situation but is maintaining its distance RUSSIA IN TURMOIL


MOSCOW -- Russia plunged even deeper into political crisis yesterday as an angry parliament took what could be the first step toward impeaching President Boris N. Yeltsin.

The military stayed officially neutral following Mr. Yeltsin's decree of emergency powers Saturday. But the balance of power appeared to shift toward Mr. Yeltsin when the three ministers in charge of the armed forces and security agencies affirmed their support for him.

They did so yesterday as the parliament, known as the Supreme Soviet, voted 125-16 to ask the nation's Constitutional Court to rule whether Mr. Yeltsin's decree violated the Constitution.

If so, the congress could institute impeachment proceedings and remove Mr. Yeltsin, which would require a two-thirds vote.

The parliamentary resolution also asked the nation's chief prosecutor to investigate whether any of Mr. Yeltsin's aides were criminally responsible for advice they gave him regarding the decree -- a threat to put some of them on trial.

Mr. Yeltsin, whose 85-year-old mother died yesterday, stayed out of sight and ignored a request to attend yesterday's emergency session of parliament.

With the president and parliament at each other's throats, several pivotal officials took refuge behind the Soviet-era constitution, avoiding publicly choosing sides in an attempt to minimize any threat of civil war.

"The armed forces will abide by the constitution," Pavel Grachev, the defense minister, told the parliament, "which prohibits the use of the armed forces for political aims."

But he warned that tensions were rising among military men, particularly in Moscow.

Conservative members of parliament, who had opened their emergency meeting yesterday vowing to dismiss Mr. Yeltsin immediately, obviously had hoped that the military would line up with them against the president.

"Please, no more such speeches -- toothless, vague, noncommittal," said Ruslan Khasbulatov, the speaker of parliament and Mr. Yeltsin's chief critic. "It is not clear who you support."

But military leaders were clearly worried that if they chose sides, disaster would follow.

"We need a compromise immediately," said Mr. Grachev, adding that one small group of conservative officers in Moscow had met yesterday and appealed to people to throw up barricades against Mr. Yeltsin.

"The situation is such that it can lead to bloodshed," he said. "That's why we need a compromise immediately, and the army is expecting it."

The Russian parliament convened yesterday planning to thwart the proclamation Mr. Yeltsin made Saturday night, in which he assumed virtually unlimited powers until a referendum on government and the privatization of land he has called for April 25.

Mr. Yeltsin imposed presidential rule after a bruising session of the Russian congress, the parent body of the parliament that met yesterday. The congress, invoking the constitution, was trying to limit Mr. Yeltsin's powers in an attempt to slow down reforms.

The power struggle between Mr. Yeltsin and the congress elected in March 1990 when the Communist party was the only legal party had virtually paralyzed the government.

"I think that there is no other way," Mr. Yeltsin said Saturday, assuming special powers. "If political squabbling is not halted, if no resolute measures are taken to resolve the political crisis, if no powerful momentum is given to the economic reforms, the country will be pushed into anarchy."

While he stopped short of dissolving parliament, he said presidential decrees would take precedence over the decisions of the legislature and courts.

On Saturday, Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court, said the decree did indeed appear to violate the constitution.

"Yeltsin's decision amounts to crossing out the constitution by the will of a single person," he said.

Others rushed to that point of view yesterday, especially Mr. Khasbulatov, a former Yeltsin ally who has led parliamentary opposition to him in the last months.

He broke off a weekend tour of former Soviet republics to return to Moscow and lead the attack against Yeltsin.

Mr. Khasbulatov, 50, said Mr. Yeltsin was clearly violating the constitution. "It's an attempt to establish arbitrary rule," Mr. Khasbulatov said, "an attempt to usurp power veiled by rhetoric about fighting the Communist hydra.

"Playing the Communist card is a straight path toward breaking up society and civil war."

And Alexander Rutskoi, the vice president and former Yeltsin ally, asserted that the president's decree "fully contradicts the constitution." He did, however, support Mr. Yeltsin's right to call a referendum.

Despite the rhetoric, several efforts by hard-line lawmakers to invoke the impeachment process or to declare Mr. Yeltsin's edicts void were defeated.

The Russian news agency Interfax reported yesterday that the congress might convene as soon as Wednesday and that sentiment was high for Mr. Rutskoi, a popular Afghan war hero, to serve as interim president until new elections could be held.

The 1,000-plus-member congress is the highest legal authority, and it selects a smaller Supreme Soviet as a sitting parliament to enact laws between sessions of the full congress.

Late Saturday and early yesterday, key members of Mr. Yeltsin's government were giving him only tepid support, but their defense of him grew more vigorous as the day wore on.

Viktor Chernomyrdin, who at first only supported Mr. Yeltsin's right to a referendum, read the parliament a statement pledging the Cabinet -- and ministers in charge of the armed forces -- would support Mr. Yeltsin.

They would, they said, support "the principles of the constitution.

At one point Mr. Khasbulatov chided members of parliament when they erupted into applause for a comment they liked. "What are you applauding?" he demanded. "This is a tragedy, and you are applauding."

Both sides have accused the other of essentially staging a coup, so an appearance by Anatoly Lukyanov added an odd element to the day.

Mr. Lukyanov, the speaker of the old Soviet parliament, is out of jail but awaiting trial on charges of joining the coup against then-President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in August 1991.

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