Day of protests against Yeltsin confirms isolation of president

 

Hundreds of thousands of Russians called on President Boris Yeltsin to resign yesterday in peaceful country-wide demonstrations which, though smaller than expected, confirmed the President's unprecedented isolation and weakness.

For the first time in post-Soviet Russia, the oft-chanted slogan "Yeltsin resign!", which echoed yesterday from the Kremlin to Vladivostok now looks more like a reasonable prediction than a hopeless dream.

Moscow witnessed one of its largest ever anti-Yeltsin demonstrations - over 150,000 people - as Communists and anti-Semitic nationalists were joined by students and middle-class professionals stung by the rouble's recent collapse.

"I'd prefer Clinton to Yeltsin. Who would you want driving your bus, a trembling alcoholic or a healthy philanderer?" said Mr Pyotr Lipatov (20), a maths student, marching with friends under a banner reading "Kohl Has Gone, Now It's Your Turn, Boris".

Addressing a crowd of 15,000 in Siberia, Gen Alexander Lebed, governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, urged Mr Yeltsin to heed the mounting calls for him to step down before 2000, when his second and final term ends.

"Today Yeltsin is alone. His closest allies have abandoned him. His friends - Kohl and Hashimoto - have left. People are being pushed to the extreme," Gen Lebed said, referring to the defeated German chancellor and the prime minister of Japan.

Over the last five years, Mr Yeltsin has skilfully deflected popular anger on to his governments, blaming a succession of ministers for mounting wage arrears and poverty. However, since the collapse of the rouble in August and the resignation of the previous prime minister, Mr Sergei Kiriyenko, Mr Yeltsin has run out of scapegoats.

Parliament rejected Mr Yelt sin's nominee for prime minister, Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin, instead backing the former foreign minister, Mr Yevgeny Primakov, who returned the compliment by bringing into government a number of left-wing politicians and nationalists from parliamentary ranks.

In a televised address on Tuesday night, Mr Primakov appealed directly to those planning to demonstrate yesterday. He pledged to clear the £3 billion wages backlog and said there were enough potatoes to last the winter. But he pointedly made no defence of Mr Yeltsin.

In deference to Mr Primakov, the Communist leader, Mr Gennady Zyuganov, did not speak at yesterday's demonstrations.

An informal alliance now exists between the left-wing and nationalist majority in the State Duma and Mr Primakov, a former diplomat who has served every Russian leader since Nikita Khrushchev. Although Mr Yeltsin still exercises huge powers on paper, the centre of gravity in Russian politics has shifted from the Kremlin to parliament and the White House, the government headquarters.

Mr Yeltsin ignored the protests outside his Kremlin window yesterday and did his best to look presidential. But few Russians are fooled. Mr Yeltsin is now in semi-retirement and "works from home" two or three days a week, leaving Mr Primakov to clear up his mess. To retire completely would leave him vulnerable to legal prosecution over his responsibility for the deaths of hundreds during the 1993 bombing of parliament, which he ordered.

In a rare interview published yesterday in the magazine, Argumenti i Fakty, the wife of the Russian President, Mrs Naina Yeltsin, said her husband would not resign.

"Many people utter the word `resignation' today like an incantation, but few people think about what would happen afterwards," Mrs Yeltsin said, denying Russian press reports that she and her husband had bought retirement homes in France and Germany.

Parliament actually needs Mr Yeltsin to remain in office as a lame duck for a year or so in order to amend the constitution and win more power. A new president with a popular mandate, such as Gen Alexander Lebed or the populist Mayor of Moscow, Mr Yuri Luzhkov, elected after a snap Yeltsin resignation would be unwilling to reduce the power of the presidency.

In return for accepting a dilution of the president's powers in a new constitution, parliament is considering offering President Yeltsin immunity from prosecution for the rest of his life by giving him 10-year membership of its upper chamber.