Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 63

President Boris Yeltsin’s state of the nation address to the Russian parliament yesterday was, compared to those of past years, close to a non-event. Following the 18-minute speech, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, not unexpectedly, dismissed it out of hand, saying that it contained nothing of substance. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky–not for the first time–did not even attend the session. As one account had it: “Boris Yeltsin’s annual message to parliament… is no more than a pretty court ritual, which both audience and authors have forgotten by the next day” (Segodnya, March 31). Indeed, while Yeltsin did touch on several substantive themes–denouncing NATO’s bombardment of Serbia but saying Russia would not be sucked into the conflict, pledging that market reforms would continue and vowing that elections would be held as scheduled–pledges and promises he has made in previous speeches have gone unfulfilled. In his 1994 address, for example, Yeltsin warned that organized crime had the country “by the throat” and promised a crackdown on the mafia. In 1997 he pledged to reduce the state’s unnecessary interference in the economy–which interference creates the preconditions for widespread corruption.

Attention is in fact focused on April 15, the day the State Duma is expected to vote on whether to formally begin impeachment procedures against Yeltsin. According to some observers, the president faces little support. As many as 305 of the Duma’s 450 deputies would reportedly vote for impeachment on the grounds of Yeltsin’s breaking up the Soviet Union. On the grounds of his responsibility for the war in Chechnya, as many as 320 are said to favor impeachment. Three hundred votes on any one count are enough to set the impeachment process in motion (Moskovskie novosti, March 30-April 5; Argumenty i fakty, No. 13, March 1999).

The idea of impeaching Yeltsin–which has already been advocated by a special Duma commission–seemed earlier to be simply a form of harassment by the leftist opposition. It has, however, become more of a real threat in recent weeks, particularly following the decision of the Federation Council, the parliament’s upper house, to back Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov and Skuratov’s apparent decision to probe alleged corruption within the Kremlin. While it is likely that neither Russia’s Supreme Court nor the Constitutional Court would sanction the Duma’s actions–the constitution requires their consent to remove the president–a Duma vote to impeach could provoke a crisis resembling the one which culminated in the shelling of the Soviet-era parliament in October 1993.