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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin to Duma: Reverse or Disband

President Boris Yeltsin and his cabinet seized the offensive in their conflict with parliament Thursday, demanding the State Duma reverse its vote of no confidence in the government within 10 days or face dissolution.


Thursday's tough and unified response from the Kremlin and White House to parliament's no-confidence vote a day earlier has again set the stage for a test of strength and nerve between Yeltsin and parliament's lower house.


But speaking at an expanded session of the government, the president also left a door open for compromise, indicating he might fire one or several of the so-called "power ministers" at a security council meeting next Thursday.


"Perhaps we will have to make decisions on the leaders of some ministries and departments," Yeltsin said, speaking of the tragic hostage crisis in Budyonnovsk. The power ministers include Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Interior Minister Viktor Yerin and Security Service chief Sergei Stepashin.


Such a move would appease some of the factions that Wednesday had voted against the government. Two of these factions, Yabloko and Women of Russia, announced they would back Chernomyrdin again if the power ministers were fired.


But Yeltsin was unequivocal in supporting his prime minister. He said he would rather disband the State Duma than Chernomyrdin's cabinet.


"I do not idealize the government," Yeltsin said. "I see its mistakes and I am aware of them, but I will not allow anyone to weaken the central link of the executive branch of the Russian state at the moment. I trust the government of Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin and we will work together."


On the Duma's decision to try to topple the government, Yeltsin said, "If they continue to insist, there are constitutional procedures to allow the current government to carry on pending new elections to the State Duma."


The government unanimously decided at Thursday's session not to wait three months for another Duma no-confidence vote, as the constitution prescribes.


Instead, the cabinet decided to invoke a different constitutional clause that allows the prime minister to initiate a confidence vote.


Unlike Wednesday's no-confidence motion initiated by the Duma, in this new scenario no second vote would be needed to force decisive action by the president, who must within seven days either fire the cabinet or dissolve the Duma.


But this is a high-risk game. A government-induced confidence vote requires the active support of 226 or more deputies for approval. Conversely, in a Duma-initiated no-confidence ballot, it is the government's opponents who must assemble the 226 votes to win.


In his letter to the Duma on Thursday, Chernomyrdin said three months of uncertainty for the government would "lead to a sharp worsening of the social-economic situation, will leave the country without a budget for 1996 ... settlement of the Chechen crisis will become more difficult and this will play into terrorists' and separatists' hands."


Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai, defending the move at a press conference, said the letter was "not pressure on the Duma and not blackmail."


But opposition leaders said they were indeed being blackmailed.


"This is a provocation by Viktor Chernomyrdin in order to get rid of the Duma," Sergei Glazyev, who initiated Wednesday's no-confidence vote, told Reuters. "The government knows the economic situation will get even worse by December, and it is doing its best to prevent a fair election."


The Duma's top lawyers said Thursday the lower house of parliament did not have to accept Chernomyrdin's call for a vote of confidence. Indeed, the constitution does not set a time frame for considering such an appeal, nor does it say the Duma has to accept it.


However, the Duma's internal rules say the parliament has to hold a confidence vote within 10 days.


"We have already ruled on confidence in the government," said Vladimir Isakov, chairman of the Duma's Legislation Committee. "They cannot force us to do it again." Anatoly Lukyanov, the Communist Party's top lawyer, agreed.


If the Duma were to accept Chernomyrdin's call for a confidence vote, it would find itself in an extremely embarrassing situation: Yeltsin's support for the cabinet means that to avoid dissolution, the chamber would have to express its approval of the government just days after slamming it for incompetence.


And although the Duma's term is almost over, most deputies are passionately against early dissolution.


"If the Duma is dissolved, the parliamentary factions will be deprived of a coordinating center and the government will carry on, working as before," Isakov said. "It would be a huge bonus to Our Home Is Russia before the election," he added, referring to Chernomyrdin's recently formed electoral bloc.


Isakov said this was the reason deputies would not take the second step in the no-confidence procedure they had themselves initiated. "That would be tantamount to voluntary dissolution."


Shakhrai said if the Duma fails to hold a confidence vote after Chernomyrdin's appeal, the government's only recourse would be to take the matter to the Constitutional Court, which could take weeks or even months to pass a ruling.


"But in that case, we will be earning political capital before the election," Shakhrai said. "The Duma deputies will be seen as people who hold on to their chairs while destabilizing the country."


Another legal way for the Duma to avoid dissolution while again expressing no confidence in the government is to impeach Yeltsin. The president has no power to disband the Duma after it votes to impeach him. But since a Supreme Court verdict proving Yeltsin guilty of a serious crime is needed for the impeachment procedure, it could be at least a month before such a vote can take place, Shakhrai said.