By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Amid anguished plaints from liberal ideologues and the indifference of the mass of the population, the Eighth Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation voted on March 12 to strip President Boris Yeltsin of a series of crucial powers. The decision promises to put an end soon to Russia's long-running constitutional crisis, with the likely outcome a parliamentary republic in which the president has only limited authority.
The congress vote also foreshadows an end to 15 months of shock therapy "reforms". Profoundly flawed in terms of orthodox economic theory, the "reforms" have been a predictable disaster.
On the technical level, the political crisis in Russia has its roots in the failure of the constitution — a much-amended 1978 document — to clearly define the powers of the president and parliament. On a more fundamental plane, the struggle reflects profound disagreements within the Russian elite on how to carry through the shift to capitalism.
In 1991, the Russian parliament had sufficient confidence in Yeltsin to vote him near-dictatorial powers while he carried through his program. The president gained sweeping rights to legislate by decree, and to appoint ministers without reference to the parliament.
Contrary to Yeltsin's predictions, the "shock" initiated at the beginning of 1992 was not followed later in the year by signs of economic recovery. By the December session of the Congress of People's Deputies, the majority of pro-capitalist parliamentarians had come to favour the reintroduction of a range of state controls to halt the crash, and a slower, less adventurist transition to capitalist structures. Joining with the minority of deputies who remained hostile to capitalism, these parliamentarians forced concessions from Yeltsin that included the dumping of his acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar.
At this stage, the deputies lacked the conviction to move decisively against the president. A last-minute compromise left Yeltsin's powers of decree intact, and placed a moratorium on moves to amend the constitution to reduce his authority. It was agreed that the question of whether Russia would be a presidential or a parliamentary republic would be put to a referendum.
Since December, the crisis in Russia has grown still more extreme. Opinion polls show that support for Yeltsin's economic strategies has shrunk to abysmal levels. Among the large section of the pro-capitalist elite that has always been sceptical of "shock therapy", and especially among the managers of depression-ravaged industry, the opposition to the president has become more desperate and determined.
Throughout February and early March, the rhetoric of parliamentary leaders and presidential aides grew more inflammatory. Yeltsin o invoke a "final option", generally assumed to mean the dissolution of parliament and direct presidential rule.
Among the population, the most general response was disgusted apathy. This weakened Yeltsin's position, since his planned referendum lost most of its value as a political weapon. Surveys suggested that as few as 40% of eligible voters would take part — too few to produce a legally binding result.
The eighth congress, in session from March 10 to 13, pushed through the decisions for which the deputies had lacked resolve in December. By a vote of 656 to 184, the parliamentarians adopted a resolution which cancelled the compromise deal that had ended the December congress sitting. Constitutional amendments that had been adopted in December, but frozen under the compromise, now entered into force.
The parliament gained the right to veto Yeltsin's decrees. Any attempt by the president to alter the existing constitutional set-up — for example, by imposing direct presidential rule — would automatically void his powers. Perhaps most crucially, the deputies became free to alter the constitution to place the appointment of key ministers under the control of parliament instead of the president.
The initiative has thus passed firmly to Yeltsin's opponents, who will now press home their advantage. Moves are reportedly under way to force the sacking of at least two cabinet members, including Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais. In charge of the government's privatisation program, Chubais has alarmed industrial managers with his plans to sell off thousands of large enterprises in the course of 1993. If removed from beneath the state umbrella, many industrialists fear, their firms would quickly go bankrupt.
Yeltsin's sidelining from power drew strikingly little response from the mass of his supporters. "Under cover of the constitution, a Communist coup has taken place", a pro-Yeltsin legislator thundered after the March 12 vote.
But outside the Kremlin walls, the scores of thousands of demonstrators who had turned out to cheer the Russian president during the August 1991 coup attempt were nowhere to be seen. Anti-Yeltsin picketers consistently outnumbered the president's backers. Political wisdom is coming slowly to citizens of the Russian republic, but its first stage is disillusionment with former heroes, and a near-universal retreat from political involvement.