Notes From a Failed Impeachment

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 17 1999 10:53 PM

Notes From a Failed Impeachment

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How embarrassing. Four days ago, speaking on two different radio talk shows in two different countries--Australia and the United States--I predicted the Duma, the Russian parliament's lower chamber, would vote to impeach President Yeltsin. I also said the Duma would reject Sergei Stepashin, the president's latest choice for prime minister. I was sure of this, and so were most other people whom we generally call experts, in this country and elsewhere. Feigning concern and dismay, we spoke about the political crisis with barely hidden excitement: These things have a way of pumping the blood, and this was a welcome change after eight months of Yevgeny Primakov, whose style and entourage was so eerily reminiscent of the late Brezhnev period.

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And then the impeachment balloon, tended lovingly by the Duma for nearly a year of preparations, deflated before our eyes. The procedure was designed as a show trial, a televised Nuremberg for the man whom the left-wing opposition blames for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Russian army, and the impoverishment and deteriorating health of the Russian nation, and whom most people justly hold responsible for the war in Chechnya. As the Communist-led impeachment committee envisioned it, politicians and celebrities would take the microphone, one after another, to make damning pronouncements about the president. This would be the crowning moment of the Duma's eight-month-long joy ride, which began when the lower house of parliament essentially rammed Primakov, its candidate for prime minister, down the throat of a president who is accustomed to forcing others to accept his choices.

Just before the Duma's orgy of blame was to commence last week, Boris Yeltsin sacked that prime minister, Russia's most popular ever, and replaced him with his own loyal ally, Stepashin. The president's choice sent a strong message to the Duma: Stepashin entered politics on the wave of late-Soviet liberalization, befriending not only Yeltsin but also the Duma's most-hated politician of all time, Anatoly Chubais; as head of the KGB successor agency in the mid-1990s, he was one of the chief engineers of the Chechen war, which was held to be the most promising of the five articles of impeachment; and, as the interior minister, Stepashin has been in charge of Russia's most battle-ready forces, an important consideration for those who remember the president's bloody confrontation with the parliament in 1993.

Ever since he has been president, Yeltsin has engaged in a ritualistic spring-cleaning of his government almost annually (even under Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's longest-serving prime minister, Yeltsin subjected the government to periodic shake-ups). In the early years his actions were generally unpredictable, symbolically powerful, and strategically brilliant. But as his health and ability to work have apparently deteriorated in the last three years, his actions have become generally unpredictable, symbolically powerful, and strategically indecipherable. He began to resemble an aging athlete who can still do the moves but can't get the timing right--a boxer reduced to flailing. This has been true of the last three times he dissolved the government--all in the last 14 months. With the removal of Primakov, it seemed, the consequences were clear: The Duma would vote for impeachment; this would be merely the start of the impossible-to-complete process of the president's removal, but it would make the Duma immune from dissolution by the president for three months; that, in turn, would mean that it could reject the president's choice for prime minister three times in a row without risking dissolution that would otherwise automatically follow; after the Duma rejected Stepashin three times, a constitutional crisis would ensue, and Yeltsin would appoint a prime minister without consulting the Duma, and the Duma would refuse to recognize its legitimacy, and the president would attempt to rule by decree and then would ultimately dissolve the Duma. Such a confrontation would have made sense if the Duma had already voted for impeachment, but as a pre-emptive strike it seemed a bit extreme; one could only conclude that Yeltsin was confused, like during a recent international meeting, when he tried to give a final press conference before the negotiations began.

Focusing on the president's suspected incompetence, we forgot about the Duma's actual incompetence. The grand impeachment trial turned into a farce. Most of the famous politicians invited to address the proceedings--Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, and a lineup of former ministers--were no-shows. The accusers who did attend rambled instead of ranting. The nationalist writer Vasiliy Belov, who was a featured speaker on the "genocide of the Russian people" article of impeachment, kept losing his place in his notes and digressing, going on at length about the Duma's structure: "Why are you divided into factions? Authority should not be fractured!" Ultranationalist Liberal National Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose faction generally votes for the Kremlin, seemed to make disruption of the proceedings his personal goal and, as his party comrades kept ceding their allotted time to him, took to the floor with ever-more-bizarre seven-minute speeches. "You'll all go crazy by the end of the day," he predicted at one point, apparently indicating he would personally drive the Duma members there.

As the glory was being drained from the proceedings, Kremlin representatives were working their own dark magic in the Duma corridors, convincing the deputies that a continued confrontation that would ultimately lead to the Duma's dissolution was not in their interests. On the second day of the hearings, a rumor spread among journalists that an alarming number of Duma deputies were falling ill. Sure enough, by the time the impeachment vote rolled around on Saturday, several dozen deputies were missing. More than a dozen of those present (the exact number differed from vote to vote) cast purposefully spoiled ballots--ones with blotted signatures or other invalidating disfigurements. None of the articles of impeachment garnered the two-thirds majority required to launch the process.

Yesterday, the day after the vote, the leaders of various groups within the Duma came to the lower chamber's building, now empty of the journalists and activists who'd filled it during the impeachment hearings. They were apparently holding meetings regarding the prime minister's candidacy, and the apparent outcome is that the Duma will confirm Sergei Stepashin on Wednesday. Left to right, the attitude expressed by the leading politicians was roughly the same: The president is clearly hellbent on doing whatever he wants, and there is no point in fighting him.

So, Yeltsin's fighting instincts were still good after all. Russia will probably get a new premier this week. He may appoint some of his old, reform-minded allies to the government; on the other hand, in various statements, he seems to be indicating that is not his plan. However, momentum has been lost in negotiations with international lenders. Same with the Yugoslavia negotiations: Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin's special envoy, who heads a political party and plans to run for president, has had to turn his attention away from international affairs at a key time. And as for my and my colleagues' apocalyptic predictions of how Yeltsin would once again try to suspend democracy to save it, the botched impeachment hearings and the Duma's apparent deference to the president's latest whim mean there is no need to suspend anything. Which raises the question of whether there is anything to save.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

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