RUMORS that top government officials are plotting a ``palace coup'' to remove a politically weakened Boris Yeltsin from power have flooded Moscow as the Russian president takes a working vacation in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov even accused the opposition of fomenting a possible putsch against Mr. Yeltsin. Mr. Kostikov said on March 22 that opposition leaders were spreading misinformation that the Russian leader is seriously ill to ``torpedo the president's attempts for civic peace and accord.
``Their aim is to destabilize the situation in the country and return to the task that the participants in the October revolt failed to solve during their first attempt,'' Kostikov said, referring to the confrontation between Yeltsin and his former communist-dominated parliament that took at least 147 lives. ``It seems like someone wants to make another revolt.''
Against a background of widespread economic chaos and mass discontent in the country, the situation has eerie echoes of the past. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was temporarily ousted while vacationing in the Crimea in August 1991.
On March 18, the Obshchaya Gazeta weekly printed an anonymous document marked ``Confidential'' that claimed a group of top Russian officials was planning a ``junta-style palace coup.'' The putsch originally was to take place on March 10, it said. The document implicated as ringleaders Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and Chief of General Staff Mikhail Kolesnikov.
Mr. Luzhkov told the Itogi television program on March 20 that the allegations were an attempt to sow seeds of suspicion. And acting Public Prosecutor Alexei Ilyushko announced March 21 that he may instigate criminal proceedings against the newspaper if the coup allegations prove false.
Opposition members hostile to Yeltsin's reforms have consolidated their forces since the largely antireform parliament granted political amnesty on Feb. 23 to the leaders of the October revolt and 1991 failed hard-line coup against Mr. Gorbachev.
The amnesty released from prison former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, two staunch Yeltsin foes. Since his release, Mr. Rutskoi has co-organized a powerful new political bloc, joining together communist and nationalist groups, with the exception of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats. Visiting an exhibit hall March 22, Rutskoi said Yeltsin sympathizers are spreading the coup rumors themselves to distract attention from the economy.
Yeltsin aide Sergei Filatov expresses a different view. ``After the political amnesty, the released leaders and their supporters are endeavoring to create a new confrontation against the president,'' he says. ``The opposition's main goal during the president's vacation is to create an atmosphere allowing it to demand early elections, because there are too many people now eager to head the Russian state.''
Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin flew to Sochi March 21 after canceling a scheduled meeting with visiting International Monetary Fund Director Michel Camdessus, fueling speculation that a putsch may be under way. News agencies reported that the visit was ``routine'' and that the two men concentrated on the economy, with Yeltsin signing a package of measures that weave a social safety net, a pre-condition for a $1.5 billion IMF loan.
Komsomolskaya Pravda reported additional troops were sent into Moscow to combat organized crime after Yeltsin's departure to Sochi. The Sevodnya daily reported most telephone lines to Yeltsin's offices had been accidentally cut by repairmen.