Rocky road for new Russian constitution


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Boris Yeltsin's campaign to concentrate near-absolute power in his own hands as president is to reach an important landmark on July 12. The Constitutional Assembly which Yeltsin summoned in order to legitimise his moves will then hold what is planned to be its final session.

Structured to provide a dependable majority for the president, the assembly is expected to do his bidding by adopting a draft for a new Russian constitution.

On June 24 a reconciling commission of 43 presidential nominees released its definitive version of the draft after considering proposed amendments from the assembly's five working groups. This version was then discussed by a plenary meeting of more than 600 assembly delegates on June 26.

It is most unlikely, however, that adoption of the draft will allow Yeltsin to proceed quickly and forcefully to set up his projected "strong executive regime". At the end of June, indispensable support from leaders of the Russian Federation's regional governments was clearly lacking.

Also, there is a serious possibility that lengthy delays in winning approval of the draft will now permit Yeltsin's opponents to regain the overall tactical advantage, which they appeared to lose during May and June.

Opening on June 5, at a time when the memory of Yeltsin's majority of votes cast in the April 25 referendum was still fresh, the Constitutional Assembly was aimed at preserving the momentum of the president's campaign and at creating the illusion of broad support for the changes he was demanding. Strenuous efforts were made to ensure that the gathering came up with the decisions required — and fast.

The assembly was not elected, but consisted of: regional and local leaders, many of them direct presidential appointees; representatives of the parliament and government; representatives of various social sectors which, in the president's view, deserved to be consulted.

The assembly's working sessions were chaired by close Yeltsin supporters, according to rules decided by the presidential apparatus.

Everything was supposed to be wound up, and the draft approved, by June 16.

In important respects, these tactics were successful. Yeltsin supporters managed to stop debate focusing closely on the draft's anti-democratic provisions, even though well-known intellectuals had published bitter criticisms of these aspects of the document.

Where working groups of the assembly raised inconvenient issues, le to be filtered out by the reconciling commission. On June 24, members of a working group made up of representatives of political parties and social movements protested angrily when they found that their amendments on the rights of labour unions had been excluded.

Regional suspicions

However, the president's supporters could not deal so brusquely with the representatives of Russia's 20 ethnic republics and 68 provinces, districts and autonomous areas. Many of these regional leaders speak for substantial economic and governmental machines, and enjoy solid support from electorates suspicious of Moscow and Yeltsin.

Mere partial support from the regions is not enough. Yeltsin's plans for forcing his new constitution through the existing hostile legislature — or if necessary, overthrowing the present constitution and the parliament — rested originally on gaining a favourable vote in the April 25 referendum, and on backing this up with endorsements from most regional executive heads and legislative leaders.

The combination of popular support and backing from the "subjects of the federation" would allow him to intimidate his opponents and claim legitimacy for his actions.

Yeltsin's support in the referendum — 37.5% of eligible voters — was at best ambiguous. Support from the regions thus became more critical than ever. However, the regional elites have no reason to want a highly centralised, authoritarian regime in Moscow.

During the proceedings of the Constitutional Assembly, rejection by regional representatives of the president's understanding of federalism has been frequent and explicit. Yeltsin's draft constitution ignored the right of nations to self-determination, Mikhail Nikolaev, president of the resource-rich republic of Sakha (formerly Yakutia) charged in an article in Izvestiya on June 30.

"The national character of the republics is not stressed", Nikolaev objected. "A process of their 'denationalisation', of turning them into ordinary territories, is under way ... Steps are being taken toward the building of what will in effect be a unitary state."

Regional leaders have also been unsympathetic to Yeltsin's hopes of using a favourable vote in the assembly as a pretext for a coup against existing state bodies. A June 17 statement signed by 48 heads of regional legislatures specifically warned the president not to try to give his assembly any constituent powers.

If Sakha and many other republics and provinces are to endorse Yeltsin's draft constitution, the president will have to make additional far-reaching concessions. This suggests that the manoeuvring around the draft will extend well past the nominal cut-off date of July 12, even if the assembly then approves a version of the text as planned. Reasoning that Yeltsin's position as time goes on, the regions are in no hurry.


Time is indeed critical. As the weeks pass, the president's "triumph" in the April referendum is perceived less and less as giving him extra authority.

Also, evidence is emerging to support allegations by Vice-President (and key opposition leader) Alexander Rutskoi in April that prominent government ministers have been involved in corrupt dealings. On June 24 first deputy general prosecutor Nikolai Makarov told parliament that there was sufficient evidence to warrant investigating Rutskoi's charges. Further delays in reaching agreement on a draft constitution could allow major scandals to surface and cut decisively into the regime's popular support.

Most critically, further significant delays would push the effort to set new structures in place over into a period when the economic misery of huge numbers of Russians will be even worse than at present.

In the second half of June the Russian State Bank increased its interest rates sharply, and the government presented the parliament with a revised budget that slashes government spending, reduces subsidies to industry and increases taxes on food and energy supplies.

Unemployment, at present unofficially around 5-6%, is likely to move quickly into double figures — in a country quite unable to provide for large numbers of jobless.

At some point after a draft charter is adopted by the assembly, Yeltsin reportedly intends to call a session of the Congress of People's Deputies. The congress, Russia's full parliament, is the state body which, under the existing constitution, can legislate changes to the "basic law".

In the nightmares of the president and his aides, one can surmise, the legislature will not be brow-beaten into accepting the new constitution. Instead, debate will focus on a motion of no confidence in a government weakened by scandals and clearly unable to stop the economic slide.

The next episode in the bad dream is that early elections are held for the parliament. The congress has rejected such proposals in the past, but among Yeltsin's opponents there are now many prepared to argue that the best way the legislature can defend itself is to go to the people on clear political programs.

Parliamentary elections, with adequate time for campaigning and fair apportioning of radio and television time, would be the most political event in Russia's recent history. Educating voters in the real choices before the country, such elections could be a victory for democracy instead of demagogy.