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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

State Duma Takes Up Kremlin's Challenge

The State Duma tossed a gauntlet back to the Kremlin on Friday, setting a date for a second confidence vote in the government and demanding the resignations of three of President Boris Yeltsin's so-called "power ministers."

But the Duma, parliament's lower house, stopped short of tilting for a full showdown with the Kremlin, voting down a motion to start impeachment procedures against the president.

And while the threat to hold a further confidence vote in the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin could force Yeltsin to choose between dismissing the cabinet or the legislature, the timing of the vote suggests that a compromise could still be reached.

Friday's tumultuous session, which followed a provocative letter from Chernomyrdin on Thursday attempting to force a further confidence vote, began with a 249 to 7 vote accepting the challenge and setting a date of July 1.

The deputies then stepped back from committing themselves to all-out confrontation with the president, failing to put a motion starting impeachment procedures on the agenda by a vote of 172 to 58, 54 short of the 226 required.

Even some of the president's most ardent critics spoke against impeachment, recalling perhaps the violent end to Yeltsin's conflict with the former Supreme Soviet in October 1993.

Vladimir Isakov, a dedicated Yeltsin opponent, warned his colleagues against "making a political mess that will lead to a really explosive situation," The Associated Press reported.

Communist Deputy Vladimir Semago was undeterred, however. Speaking to reporters outside the Duma's chambers, he said his party had enough signatures to raise the issue anyway at an upcoming special session of the Duma on July 1.

But in a day when the votes came fast and furious, the Duma promptly demanded that Yeltsin fire three of his so-called "power" ministers: Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Interior Minister Viktor Yerin and Nationalities Minister Nikolai Yegorov.

The three are seen as bearing the brunt of responsibility for the disastrous hostage crisis in the southern city of Budyonnovsk, in which at least 121 people were killed and the Russian authorities were thoroughly humiliated by a band of some 70 Chechen rebels.

Sergei Stepashin, the director of the Federal Security Service, often seen as a fourth pillar in the so-called "party of war," narrowly escaped a call for his head Friday.

The Duma's resolutions do not carry the force of law, however, and they carry as much scent of compromise as of confrontation. Yeltsin had indicated already Thursday that he too was unhappy with the performance of the power ministers and would consider sacking them at a Security Council meeting June 29.

That date helps to explain the Duma's chosen date of July 1 to revisit a vote on the government, opening the door for Yeltsin to sack the power ministers and avoid confrontation, or else once again dare the Duma to force its own dismissal.

If Chernomyrdin's confidence vote were held, it is unlikely that the government would get approval, since the formula requires 226 positive votes -- an almost impossible tally given that the Duma on Wednesday successfully mustered the votes to vote no-confidence in the government. That would force Yeltsin to choose between his prime minister and the Duma, and he has already said he would disband the Duma.

"This is a brand of blackmail, and is based on the notion that the Duma's nerves will not hold out under the threat of dissolution," said Yevgeny Malkin, head of the political council of the Democratic Party of Russia.

Some deputies, however, said that even if Yeltsin dismisses all the ministers whose resignations were called for, they would still not vote to approve a confidence measure.

The Democratic Party of Russia has begun collecting the 90 signatures necessary to get a vote of no confidence on the July 1 agenda as well.

Chernomyrdin's challenge was a subtle move, invoking an obscure clause in the constitution that allows him to force the Duma to vote its approval of the government, and came unexpected by the legislators.

Few deputies said they feared the threat of dissolution. But it would undoubtedly put Chernomyrdin and his party Our Home Is Russia in a strong position for parliamentary elections that would have to be moved forward several months from December.

Chernomyrdin not only is riding a wave at the moment after his success in the Budyonnovsk negotiations, but also enjoys the benefits of presiding over a relatively stable economy. That may well not be the case after autumn. In addition, his supporters are regional leaders and enterprise directors, all of whom have the means to organize a quick election campaign.

"I think Chernomyrdin wants them to vote against the government," said Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "In three months time, he looks good going into an electoral cycle."

Other deputies said they hoped a compromise could be reached, although they cited other reasons.

"I think the Duma will express confidence in the government," said Antonina Zhirina, a deputy from the Women of Russia faction. Dissolving the Duma, she said, is an unlikely option, "because that would leave Russia without a representative body [until upcoming elections] and that would be highly anti-populist."

The Duma's calls were echoed Friday by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who was in Budyonnovsk examining the hospital where more than 1,000 people had been held hostage.

"Having visited Budyonnovsk," Interfax quoted Luzhkov as saying, "one can see on the site of the tragedy how clumsy and absurd the actions of the power structures were."

"I'm not sure the Duma will compromise," said Viktor Sheinis, a deputy from the opposition Yabloko faction. "It is possible that many deputies will change their position, but my faction will discuss the question anew."