By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — As campaigning for the December 17 parliamentary elections gains momentum, President Boris Yeltsin is preparing another assault on the federal legislature. Yeltsin has indicated that he plans to block the holding of elections for the upper house, the Council of the Federation. In the president's scheme, the members of the next council will be chosen undemocratically, on a basis that will cripple the parliament's ability to oppose presidential dictates. In debates throughout much of 1993 on a new constitution, supporters and opponents of Yeltsin agreed that the parliament should have an upper house, popularly elected on a basis similar to that used in choosing the US Senate.
Then came the September 1993 coup, in which Yeltsin overthrew the existing constitution and parliament, and suspended the functioning of the Constitutional Court. The president subsequently imposed his own draft constitution.
Here the provision for elections was replaced by a vague formulation stating that the Council of the Federation would be "formed" on the basis of a federal law. The council was to consist of two representatives from each constituent subject of the Russian Federation, "one from the representative and one from the executive branch".
As an interim measure, the first council was elected for two years in December 1993 on the basis of an election law adopted by presidential decree.
The work of preparing a law that would define the permanent method of "forming" the council came to a head in July this year, when both houses of the current parliament passed a bill providing for upper house elections. In August, however, Yeltsin vetoed this legislation.
For some time the president and his key supporters — including Council of the Federation speaker Vladimir Shumeiko — had indicated that they preferred to declare the executive and legislative heads of Russia's 89 republics, provinces and other "subjects of the federation" to be members ex officio of the upper house. Many of these people would enter the federal parliament without having faced any kind of election. Of the regional executive heads, only 22 have been popularly elected; the great majority are Yeltsin appointees.
On September 8, Yeltsin remarked at a press conference that he planned to order the appointment of regional leaders to the Council of the Federation, along with "four or five" representatives of the federal government. According to a presidential adviser quoted on September 14 by the English-language Moscow Tribune, Yeltsin also intends to appoint the council's speaker and deputy speakers.
These plans appear to breach the constitution. Appointing provincial executive chiefs (not to speak of representatives of the federal government) to membership of a legislative body would violate the separation of powers, which is spelled out clearly in the charter. Also, the stipulation that the council is to be formed on the basis of a federal law suggests strongly that a presidential decree would be invalid.
Yeltsin's appointment of the speaker would violate a constitutional provision that the speaker is to be elected by the deputies. Finally, the constitution specifies that the council should be a professional, full-time chamber; this could not be the case if it consisted of provincial political bosses whose main work was elsewhere.
Opponents of the president thus have excellent grounds for objecting that the planned new structure is undemocratic and illegal. However, there is no guarantee that opponents of would win a challenge in the Constitutional Court. After the events of September-October 1993, the court was reorganised and expanded; its resolve to stand up to the president has clearly waned as a result.
The battle to decide how the Council of the Federation is formed will be political rather than legal. The outcome will depend on the extent to which defenders of free elections and representative institutions are able to mobilise popular support, pointing out the danger which Yeltsin's scheme represents for Russia's half-formed, embattled democracy.
This peril is serious. If the upper house is formed as Yeltsin intends, it will be unlikely to convene for more than a few days 10 or 12 times a year. On such a schedule, it will be incapable of acting as an effective house of review. Bills adopted by the lower house will either be passed unexamined or, more likely, will bank up.
With vital laws failing to emerge from the parliament, the president will be ideally placed to substitute his own decrees. Presidential dictatorship, already a danger, will come several steps closer.
Meanwhile, elections of regional governors are not expected to take place in more than a few provinces before the final months of 1996. Until then, the upper house will retain a large bloc of local executive chiefs who depend directly on Yeltsin for their jobs. As a result, successful efforts to cancel presidential decrees will remain rare, and the parliament's right to impeach the president will be meaningless.
The main claim in favour of Yeltsin's scheme is that the periodic gatherings of regional chiefs will provide effective representation of regional interests at the federal level. Ordinary provincial residents might well disagree. But local administrative apparatchiks and the "nomenklatura capitalists" with whom they have largely fused will be delighted to have a new tool for influencing the power structures in Moscow.
Yeltsin is on course to turn the council into a well-equipped lobbying base for regional potentates — in the phrase of one Moscow journalist, a "House of Warlords". The distortions this introduces into federal policies are likely to be grave.
Yeltsin's plans have drawn angry protests from parliamentarians and constitutional lawyers. But whether the parliament and the leaders of Russia's democratic and left parties understand the danger remains to be seen.
In past months, the parliament's inclination has been to seek a compromise, if necessary on a flagrantly undemocratic basis. The upper house electoral bill adopted in July, and vetoed by Yeltsin, included the provision that candidates had to be nominated by the legislature or executive power in each province. According to the parliamentarians, there was still a place in Russia for "elections" in which the choice before voters was limited to carefully vetted official candidates.
In Russia, the illusion that Yeltsin and his circle feel any commitment to defending democratic institutions perished long ago. The task of leading the struggle for the right of Russians to elect the institutions that rule them is devolving on politically aware sections of the working people. These elements must now draw the self-proclaimed "democrats" in their wake.