The Kremlin’s bow to Chechen terrorists to win freedom for more than 1,000 hostages exacted a political toll Wednesday when deputies of the lower house of the Russian Parliament voted “no confidence” in the government over its handling of the crisis.
After the gunmen who had waged a weeklong killing spree escaped into the sheltering hills of Chechnya, parliamentary deputies of all political walks directed their hunt for scapegoats at Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, despite his success in bringing the incident that had earlier taken 100 lives to a bloodless conclusion.
Deputies of the Duma voted 244-72 to proclaim a lack of faith in Chernomyrdin’s ability to protect citizens from the violence convulsing Russia.
The deeply divided lower house failed, however, to muster enough votes for a similar reprimand of Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, Interior Minister Viktor F. Yerin and national security forces chief Sergei V. Stepashin - the officials directly responsible for ensuring public safety.
President Boris N. Yeltsin, himself the target of withering criticism for a feeble response to the hostage incident, indicated through his spokesman that he would ignore the parliamentary appeal to sack Chernomyrdin and his Cabinet. “The president has no grounds for distrusting the government,” Yeltsin’s press secretary, Sergei K. Medvedev, told journalists after the no-confidence vote.
Under the Russian constitution, the president is under no obligation to react to such a vote unless the deputies repeat their action within three months. After a second vote of no-confidence, the president must either fire the Cabinet or dismiss the Parliament and call new elections.
An official with Moscow’s Presidential Analytic Center said Yeltsin was more inclined to get rid of the fractious Duma than abandon Chernomyrdin, whose “Our Home Is Russia” political bloc would likely back a re-election bid by Yeltsin. “I am sure the president would more willingly part with the Duma than with the government,” said analyst Viktor I. Borisyuk, denouncing the vote as an obvious attempt by opposition figures to get political mileage out of the crisis.
Chernomyrdin attempted to defend his decision to cut a deal with the hostage-takers, reminding Duma deputies before they voted that “not a single person died during the negotiations” he undertook with Chechen guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev after heavily armed fighters attacked the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk on June 14.
The gunmen executed Russian men in uniform and herded more than 1,000 townsfolk into a hospital to use as human shields and bargaining chips to get the Kremlin to call off its war against Chechnya’s secession. Once Chernomyrdin agreed Sunday to peace talks and a temporary cease-fire, the killing stopped.
Freed hostages who returned to Budyonnovsk rallied to express their anger against the leadership, demanding the immediate resignation of the president, government and Parliament.
“The tragic events in Budyonnovsk … were the result of the inept policy pursued by the president, government and the power ministers,” the shaken former captives declared in a statement sent to Moscow. They denounced the Kremlin’s handling of the crisis as “a humiliation for the population of the town and Russian citizens in general.”