MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin suddenly dissolved the hostile Russian Parliament last night and announced popular elections for a new legislature, driving the country into its worst political crisis since the collapse of communism two years ago.
Moving to cap the debilitating yearlong confrontation with his anti-reform foes in the legislature, the president finally took the step that he had avoided through a succession of earlier skirmishes that sapped his ability to govern.
Staking his power and the nation's future on a bold gamble, Mr. Yeltsin told members of Parliament -- many of them Communists -- to go home and dared its leaders to do something about his action.
But the legislature, defiant to the last, refused to be dissolved. Instead, it convened a midnight session, nullified Mr. Yeltsin's action and proclaimed Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, a former Yeltsin ally, as the new president of Russia.
"As of today, only my decrees and those of the chairman of the Parliament are valid," Mr. Rutskoi said after the emergency session.
Barricades were thrown up around the White House, the riverside building where the Parliament meets. Heavily armed police were deployed at key spots in Moscow. And the military officially proclaimed its neutrality.
It appeared to be Russia's most severe crisis since the failed Soviet coup of August 1991, when hard-liners tried to topple former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev but ended up toppling themselves and the Communist regime.
As of this morning the country had two presidents, each declaring the other to be outside the law. It had two centers of power, the Kremlin and the White House.
In Washington, President Clinton said he fully supported Mr. Yeltsin's decision to dissolve Parliament and call for popular elections. He spoke to Mr. Yeltsin by telephone shortly after the announcement in Moscow.
The Russian president's sudden and sweeping declaration, broadcast in a 20-minute nationwide television address at 8 p.m., left little room for backtracking or compromise.
The powers of the Congress of People's Deputies and of the smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, he said, "are terminated as of today."
Mr. Yeltsin, as pugnacious as he has ever been, said the "senseless and futile struggle" with the Parliament was threatening the peace and stability of Russia. He said he was forced to act to preserve the country.
"The security of Russia and its people is a higher value," he said, "than the formal observance" of constitutional niceties.
He set elections for Dec. 11-12 for an entirely new legislative body.
But parliamentary and legal challenges immediately arose against the decree.
Mr. Rutskoi declared that Mr. Yeltsin had overstepped the bounds of the constitution and thereby automatically disqualified himself from remaining in office.
Early this morning the Supreme Soviet declared Mr. Yeltsin's decree to be null and void, and it voted his removal from office. The Parliament also voted the removal of the ministers of defense, interior and security.
Court backs opposition
Russia's Constitutional Court, under the leadership of Valery Zorkin, also held an abrupt meeting this morning and declared by a 10-4 vote that the presidential decree was illegal and that there were sufficient grounds to impeach Mr. Yeltsin. Mr. Zorkin, who once made an effort at impartiality, has for the past year been firmly in the opposition camp.
The chiefs of the key ministries -- including defense, security and the interior -- met last night and agreed to support Mr. Yeltsin's move, according to Vladimir Shumeiko, a vice premier restored yesterday after a brief suspension on charges of corruption. An official statement from the armed forces, however, declared that they would stay out of the political struggle.
An earlier report had suggested that the ministers opposed the sweeping decree beforehand, but if their support for Mr. Yeltsin now holds, it could be an important card in his hand.
Mr. Yeltsin's dissolution of Parliament also put his fate into the hands of hundreds of local councils throughout Russia. With those local authorities, the police and armed forces on his side, Mr. Yeltsin could make his opponents in the White House look isolated and ridiculous.
And in this sense, for once, even apathy could prove to be to his benefit.
But if the two sides settle down into a long stalemate, this in the long run could prove very destructive to Mr. Yeltsin's authority.
If there is no violence, but simply two hostile centers of government warily eyeing each other -- in place of two hostile branches of government, as before -- the inevitable result would be the further independence of Russia's regions at the expense of Moscow.
The outlying regions of the giant Russian Federation, disgusted by the
political shenanigans in Moscow, might simply take command of their own destiny.
Finally, there could be an outbreak of violence -- which could quickly go beyond the control of any one man or faction.
Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of the Parliament and Mr. Yeltsin's most abiding enemy, called this morning for the convening of the full Congress of People's Deputies, as early as today, to deal with what he termed Mr. Yeltsin's "coup d'etat."
He called on all local councils and law-enforcement bodies to disobey Mr. Yeltsin's decree, and asked for a general strike throughout Russia to "bring the country back to law."
But the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, said the early reaction from the Ural Mountain area and from towns along the Volga River was generally in support of Mr. Yeltsin.
'Abyss of multiple authority'
Mr. Chernomyrdin, a mild and generally conservative man who was forced on Mr. Yeltsin by the Congress last December, was disdainful of Mr. Rutskoi's claim to the presidency. "I think it will do no good. It is inadmissible to throw the country into an abyss of multiple authority," he said.
Mr. Yeltsin has had famously bad relations with the Parliament for more than a year, but his timing yesterday was a puzzle.
Indeed, there were plenty of hints and possible motives for doing away with the legislature, but no obvious precipitating event.
On Aug. 19, at a commemoration of the second anniversary of his triumph against the failed junta, Mr. Yeltsin promised a "hot" September.
Last week, he visited the crack Dzerzhinski KGB regiment and chose the occasion to announce that Yegor Gaidar, loathed by the opposition, would be returning to his Cabinet.
On Saturday, Mr. Khasbulatov said Mr. Yeltsin was nothing more than a "muzhik," or rough country lout, and suggested that he was a drunkard.
This brought a savage rebuke from Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, who said the parliamentary leader had reached "the stage of utter political and moral degradation."
On Monday Mr. Rutskoi said he had information that Mr. Yeltsin was planning a coup, and Mr. Khasbulatov vowed to defend the Parliament.
Mr. Yeltsin, whose speech to the nation was taped late in the afternoon, justified his move by accusing the Supreme Soviet of sabotaging every compromise or agreement that he had reached with it in an attempt to keep Russia moving toward economic reform.
He said in particular that the legislature had adopted laws "deliberately designed" to worsen the economy.
"Law-making has become a tool of political struggle," he said. "A deplorable practice has taken root, which can be summed up in a primitive formula: We shall promulgate any law we want, we shall lay down what we want. And, further, the more confusion, the wider the field for abuse.
"It is no longer possible to be inactive," he said. "It is my presidential duty to admit: The current corps of deputies has lost the right to wield the major levers of state power."