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Yeltsin Suspends Top Court

By Peter Maass
The Washington Post


President Boris Yeltsin Thursday suspended Russia's Constitutional Court, saying it had pushed the country to the brink of civil war, and his campaign to win more direct control outside Moscow moved ahead as key regional councils began discussing his demand that they disband.

Yeltsin's decree said that the court had "turned into a weapon in the political battle, which was especially dangerous for the state."

Thursday's events, which included the surrender of an alleged ringleader of this week's failed uprising, bolster Yeltsin's effort to consolidate his power and deprive the hard-line opposition of a chance to bounce back. But with the national parliament disbanded and regional councils in limbo, Yeltsin's dissolution of the country's highest court has left virtually no checks to his rule, at least until after parliamentary elections, scheduled for Dec. 12.

Interior Minister Viktor Yerin said Thursday that of the 1,338 people arrested since the rebellion began, just over 200 remain in jail. He said only one member of parliament -- Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov -- is still behind bars. Yeltsin Thursday awarded Yerin the title of Hero of the Russian Federation for his role in helping crush the uprising.

Thursday was observed as the official day of mourning for victims of the uprising -- the death toll was raised to a provisional 193 -- and soldiers and police voiced emotional support for the government during burial ceremonies for 17 of their slain colleagues. Deep bitterness against the uprising's ringleaders -- fired vice president Alexander Rutskoi and Khasbulatov -- burst out at the funeral of one policeman.

"They killed innocent people," said Police Maj. Vitali Kiko, as he watched gravediggers shovel dirt onto his lieutenant's pine coffin. "If I could, I would shoot them on sight."

The funeral was an uneasy mixture of tears and fears. As it ended, Maria Marvin, mother of the dead lieutenant, was carried away on a stretcher after hours of sobbing at her son's open coffin. "Sasha, Sasha, say something to me, anything, before you leave forever," she cried out at one point.

Before the lieutenant was buried, with his police hat nailed to the coffin cover, paramilitary sharpshooters scanned nearby buildings, worried that fugitive participants in the uprising might try to disrupt the rites.

The Constitutional Court, chaired until Wednesday by Valery Zorkin, a political opponent of Yeltsin, had opposed many of the president's key decrees. Zorkin resigned the chairmanship under pressure but did not give up his seat on the court.

Observers speculated that Zorkin's semi-surrender might be enough to save the court, but Yeltsin's decree tonight indicates the president wants to undertake a complete housecleaning -- and feels powerful enough to do it.

"Twice in 1993 the court, through its hasty actions, pushed Russia to the brink of civil war," stated the decree, which suspended the 13-judge court until the country has a new constitution. "But when the risk of civil war grew real, the court did nothing."

Zorkin frequently attacked Yeltsin and energetically supported Rutskoi and Khasbulatov, who surrendered to police Monday as the uprising was crushed. In its waning hours, Rutskoi made a frantic call to Zorkin from the battered parliament and pleaded with him to use whatever influence he had to stop government forces from shelling the building.

The Constitutional Court did not have the power to enforce its decisions but its attempts to limit Yeltsin's power increased confusion in Russia, Yeltsin supporters contend.

The confusion, in turn, helped strengthen the hand of regional councils that largely opposed Yeltsin's efforts to speed up privatization and democratic reforms.

In his first speech since the uprising collapsed, Yeltsin said Wednesday night that the regional councils should disband themselves. Most of the councils, called soviets, are controlled by Soviet-era apparatchiks, and although they do not want to comply with Yeltsin's demand, they may fear that the kind of force used in Moscow could be used against them.

Thursday night, Russian television reported that the councils in St. Petersburg, Archangel, Krasnodar and Saratov, among other locations, had begun holding discussions on disbanding.