Yeltsin's draft constitution adopted as republics proliferate


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — By a margin of 433 to 62, Russia's Constitutional Assembly voted on July 12 to adopt a draft of a new "basic law". The draft, which generally follows a text proposed in April by President Boris Yeltsin, will now be sent to regional legislatures for approval.

The vote was less of a triumph for Yeltsin than might be imagined. The assembly had been deliberately structured to ensure a friendly majority. More important than the voting totals were various pointers to the fate which the draft constitution will meet in the regions.

After the vote, delegates from Russia's 89 constituent republics, provinces and other territories were called on to show their assent to the draft by signing it. But representatives of only 10 out of 21 republics, and of about two-thirds of the provinces and autonomous districts, agreed to do so. There are indications that the regional legislatures will prove still more hostile.

A key question is thus emerging: can a federal state adopt a constitution which a long series of "subjects of the federation" — including some of the largest and wealthiest — emphatically reject?

The satisfaction in the Yeltsin camp was also tempered by the fact that over the previous weeks, legislatures in four provinces had voted to raise the status of their territories to that of republics within the Russian Federation. In so doing, they gave notice that they intend to take much greater control over local affairs, especially in matters of finance and taxation. Their decisions reinforce a trend which threatens to strip Yeltsin and his ministers of much of their authority outside the capital.

Presidential dictatorship

Preoccupied with these struggles, the Russian press

has largely ignored the actual content of the new draft. Despite introducing hundreds of minor amendments, and modifying some of the president's most outrageous demands, the assembly preserved the basic character of Yeltsin's text.

As a result, the strong criticisms of the original document made by a number of distinguished Russian intellectuals still hold. The assembly's draft is not a blueprint for democracy, but for a barely qualified presidential dictatorship.

The draft includes a detailed list of human rights supposedly to be guaranteed — but then permits the state to limit any individual right "in the interests of protecting the constitutional system, morality, health, the rights and interests of others".

Like Yeltsin's original, the draft adopted by the assembly would give the president virtually unrestricted powers to appoint and dismiss government ministers. The parliament would be little more than a sounding-board, with even its purely legislative powers tightly limited. For example, parliament would be permitted to introduce legislation on the budget or taxes only with the agreement of the government. The government, meanwhile, would be appointed by the president.

As in Yeltsin's original document, the judicial branch would be reorganised to increase its vulnerability to presidential pressures. In an additional gift to Yeltsin, the assembly introduced a provision to increase by five the number of judges on the Constitutional Court, opening the way for the president to stack it with his supporters.

In a society with a developed culture of democracy, efforts to impose provisions such as these would arouse furious opposition. But in Russia, the controversy aroused by the draft has rarely centred on its potential for cementing in place autocratic forms of rule.

Instead, the heat has been generated by the draft's crude and inequitable provisions for federal structures in a multi-ethnic state. Here, the draft's critics have often been as far from voicing the real

interests of the people of Russia's republics and provinces as have the document's supporters.


Federalism in Russia is a complex phenomenon which can be understood only in historical perspective. In the early 1920s the Bolshevik revolutionaries sought to meet the demands for self-determination of Russia's ethnic minorities by creating national territories within a federal structure. Self-determination failed to develop, however, primarily because of the degeneration of Communist Party rule into a highly centralised bureaucratic dictatorship.

The formal structures of national self-determination remained in the union republics and in the "autonomous" territories that were subordinated to them. The ethnic territories were ranked in a largely arbitrary system of republics, provinces and other classifications. The oddities of this system increased as migration meant that the "titular" nationalities often became minorities in their own homelands. Today, these national groups often make up fewer than 30% of the population in the republics.

Alongside the "autonomous" republics and districts, the Russian Republic was divided for administrative purposes into scores of provinces and regions with Russian ethnic majorities.

Especially since the collapse of the USSR, the pressures for decentralisation of authority have constantly increased. In part, this reflects the growing power of local administrative and economic elites — largely, the former party-state apparatus seizing property and turning itself into a capitalist class.

But the process also has more legitimate roots. In the first place, there is the desire of the "titular nationalities" finally to make their self- determination a reality. Also, the demand for decentralisation reflects local anger at the administrative style of the Yeltsin regime.

Intent on "reforming" an often sceptical society, Yeltsin has fought to establish a "strong

executive power" — a struggle in which his attempts to impose an authoritarian, centralist constitution are only one aspect. Yeltsin and his ministers have resisted surrendering control over countless petty details of provincial administration; local executive heads have complained that they "cannot so much as erect a public toilet" unless they clear the decision with Moscow.

Divided loyalties

Another aspect of Yeltsin's struggle to centralise power has been his refusal to set up the type of administrative structures essential for genuine federalism. This is one of the keys to understanding the relations between the federal authorities and the regions in the past few years. Paradoxically, it is now emerging as a major source of weakness for the presidential camp.

In "normal" federal systems, federal and regional authorities set up distinct executive bodies to implement their policies. In Australia, for example, a federal instrumentality collects federal taxes in each of the states, independently of state tax bodies.

The "federalism" of the USSR, however, had no need of such duplication. A "united executive authority" implemented both federal policy and its local echo.

The Yeltsin regime has preserved and fetishised the "united executive authority" as part of its drive for a "strong presidential power". After August 1991, presidential satraps were appointed to head the executive apparatuses in many regions.

Meanwhile, provincial and especially republican legislatures have regularly adopted legislation that conflicts with federal law, and the "united authority" has been faced with choosing which set of orders to execute. Even where appointees of the president have remained faithful to him — and some have not — Yeltsin now often lacks a reliable mechanism for implementing his policies. This is one of the key reasons behind the president's striking weakness as the assertiveness of the regions has increased.

Superimposed on this struggle, especially since late 1992, has been Yeltsin's fight against the Russian parliament.

In pursuing this battle, Yeltsin has been forced to court the support of the regions, modifying his centralising offensive in order to grant them important concessions. The most striking successes have been scored by the ethnically defined republics — especially Tatarstan, which according to its leaders was allowed to keep 50% of its oil revenues in 1992.

According to Izvestia early in July, the republics "independently determine the system of organs of power and government, budget and tax policy, and control and coordinate the actions of organisations subject to the federation ..." A series of republics including Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Tuva have declared themselves subjects of international law.

The advantages enjoyed or claimed by the republics are fiercely resented by the ethnically Russian provinces. This antagonism between "subjects of the federation" forms another key aspect of the struggles surrounding the federal system.

Little to offer

Even before the Constitutional Assembly began its work early in June, Yeltsin's manoeuvring had left many leaders of both republics and provinces critical and suspicious. Now, the provisions contained in the assembly's draft satisfy the essential demands of neither group.

The draft defines the republics as "sovereign states within the Russian Federation", and recognises their right to adopt their own constitutions and to conclude bilateral treaties with Moscow. But the republics are still denied the right to secede, and Yeltsin remains hostile to their efforts to develop their own tax and customs regimes.

For the provinces and regions, defined as mere "state-territorial formations within the federation", the draft has even less to offer. It incorporates a set of Federation Treaties adopted last

autumn, and which are considered to be much more favourable to the republics than to the other "subjects of the federation". Once passed into law, this section would be almost impossible to amend.

Many provincial legislatures are now expected to reject the draft, arguing that it would set in stone the inequalities of the current system.

A number of provinces have sought to escape this dilemma by unilaterally declaring themselves sovereign republics.

In a number of cases, this decision clearly has economic as well as political roots. Soon after declaring itself a republic of the Russian Federation in mid-May, Vologda province suspended payment of a 20% federal levy on timber; this money is now to flow into the provincial budget.

After the local legislature in Yeltsin's native Sverdlovsk province on July 1 declared its intention to transform the province into the "Urals Republic", local administrative head Eduard Rossel complained in an interview that the province had been paying out far more in taxes to the central government than it had been receiving in federal revenues. The list of provinces to declare their choice of republican status now also includes Chelyabinsk, Chita and Primorye.

In the short term, Yeltsin has some cause to welcome the proliferation of "sovereign republics". Supporters of the president among the leaders of Sverdlovsk province sought to explain their move as an attempt to strengthen the federation by creating a counterweight to the ethnically based republics.

At least publicly, Yeltsin disagreed, describing the Vologda and Sverdlovsk developments as "untimely", and calling on the provinces to suspend their decisions until the Constitutional Assembly had finished its work. A statement issued through the president's press office described the trend toward "confederative" rather than federal relations as "dangerous and unacceptable".

One of the results of spreading

"republicanisation" will be to allow the Russian regions to exert many rights of local decision-making that should legitimately be theirs. But there is no reason to think that the process will lead to the rise of a workable federal system.

The thrust of these developments is to weaken the central government through denial of revenues, to the advantage of local elites that are often more greedy and barbaric than those in Moscow.

These regional power-brokers have nothing to gain from backing the new draft constitution, and Yeltsin, now committed to drastic spending cuts, has little with which to bribe them. The document is thus unlikely to receive the massive endorsement from the regional legislatures needed if Yeltsin is to force it past the hostile full parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies.

Meanwhile, Yeltsin has not found a workable mechanism for adoption of a new constitution that does not involve the congress. The decisive advance that adoption of the draft by the Constitutional Assembly was supposed to represent has not occurred. The confused, enervating struggle for power in Russia can be expected to continue.