Yeltsin Fends Off Impeachment -
Gives Communists Big Defeat
MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia's embattled President Boris Yeltsin easily fended off impeachment on Saturday to hand his old Communist foes in parliament a crushing and humiliating defeat.
The result constituted yet another remarkable comeback for a president who this week appeared on the ropes and headed for the dark chapters of Russian history.
Communists who had spent nearly a year mounting their Kremlin offensive were shocked at the result. Party boss Gennady Zyuganov cursed his own troops as he walked past journalists: "Damned legion."
"It's bad that impeachment failed," a deflated Zyuganov said, Interfax reported. "The nation understands what is going on and now the voters can themselves judge their deputies."
The State Duma lower house deputies collected just 283 impeachment votes on the most serious charge facing Yeltsin -- his role in launching the bloody and brutal 1994-96 Chechen war.
The outcome was well short of the two-thirds majority, 300 votes, necessary to formally launch impeachment proceedings. The other four counts faired even worse.
Some 239 deputies voted to impeach Yeltsin over his role in disbanding the Soviet Union; 263 had wanted Yeltsin cited for his decision to order tanks to shell parliament in October 1993; 241 deputies supported charging Yeltsin with ruining the armed forces; and 238 deputies believed him guilty of committing genocide against the Russian people.
Only 348 lawmakers took part in the vote after Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party boycotted the session in support of Russia's only freely-elected leader.
The Kremlin said Yeltsin had reacted "calmly" to the Communists' defeat.
"We always thought that impeachment was unnecessary," Yeltsin's chief of staff Alexander Voloshin told ITAR-TASS.
Yeltsin's premier-designate Sergei Stepashin, who faces Duma confirmation on Wednesday, told Interfax: "We have overcome the most difficult political crisis we faced. Reason prevailed."
Leftist deputies were up in arms that some 46 ballots had been thrown out by the Duma elections committee which counted the results.
Committee chairman Igor Bratishchev however defended the decision by stating that deputies disqualified their own vote on purpose.
"Some of the ballots had big crosses on them," Bratishchev said. "These deputies, whose names will made public later, did not want their votes to count."
Saturday's vote marked the closest Yeltsin's Communist foes have come to legally removing him from office. Many Russians feel that policies followed by Yeltsin in the past eight years were criminal as they left many impoverished.
Lawmakers have backed down in all important showdowns with Yeltsin since he shelled parliament into submission in 1993.
Zyuganov tried his best to make sure impeachment -- which has been has party's rallying crying since he lost a run-off election to Yeltsin in July 1996 -- would be a success.
Wrapping up three days of fractious and often chaotic debate a fired-up Zyuganov branded Yeltsin an "absolute evil for Russia" who must be found guilty of crimes against his own people.
Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party whose 46 votes in favor of the Chechnya made impeachment a possibility, told lawmakers before the vote: "We must set a precedent for punishing the authorities for their crimes," he said.
Up to 80,000 civilians and soldiers died in the 21-month Chechen war which ended in August 1996.
Yeltsin spent Saturday as he had the entire impeachment debate -- far removed from the Kremlin. He left for his Rus hunting estate some 100 kilometers (60 miles) outside Moscow after a scheduled medical check-up, the Kremlin said.
The vote was the fruit of an 11-month campaign waged by the president's arch-foe in parliament -- the Communist Party, which has been itching for revenge since its banishment by Yeltsin in the wake of a failed coup by hardliners in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin chief threw down a fresh gauntlet to lawmakers on Wednesday when he fired premier Yevgeny Primakov, who enjoyed broad support in the Duma.
Analysts said the defiant move aimed to push the Duma into a corner over the premiership. Three refusals to endorse the Kremlin's candidate would trigger the dissolution of parliament.