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Russia: Complexities Make State Of Emergency Almost Impossible

  • Sophie Lambroschini

As Russia's wave of bombings continues, the country's political circles are rife with speculation that the Kremlin may be contemplating declaring a general state of emergency. But while authorities have been able to put some strict security measures into effect, both legal and political considerations make it close to impossible for President Boris Yeltsin to legally declare a state of emergency. RFE/RL's correspondent in Moscow, Sophie Lambroschini, explores the legal complexities of Russia's fight against terrorism.

Moscow, 16 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the past two weeks, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has pledged that no general state of emergency would be proclaimed in response to a series of deadly bombings in Russia. But three months before scheduled parliamentary elections and less than a year before a presidential vote, rumors to that effect remain quite hard to quash.

Yesterday, the Russian daily "Segodnya" said the panic sown by the bombs, which have killed some 285 people since August 31, has created an atmosphere in which the public would look favorably on a state of emergency. The paper said, too, that such a measure would be politically profitable for the currently unpopular president, Boris Yeltsin. In particular, "Segodnya" noted, emergency measures would give Yeltsin the possibility of canceling the coming elections, limiting the activities of political parties, and introducing strict censorship in the media.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said earlier this week that he had seen presidential administration documents that could impose a state of emergency throughout the country. But Russian legislators say the present situation does not provide Yeltsin with either the possibility or the right to declare a general emergency.

The legislators say that's because the conditions and limits of a state of emergency are all spelled out in a draft law that has not been adopted by the State Duma (lower house). And to fill the legal vacuum left by the unpassed law, the country's 1993 constitution says Russia must abide by Soviet-era laws.

The last Soviet law on a state of emergency was passed in 1991. It allows for the suspension of many basic rights and freedoms. The law provides for canceling elections, introducing censorship, and allowing the suspension of media. It also makes possible a ban on demonstrations, strikes and political parties, and allows for the expulsion of people disrupting public order.

Duma deputy Aleksei Popov, a lawyer specializing in public law, says the Soviet law treats a state of emergency as a last resort to be imposed only when other measures are not sufficient.

Popov calls the 1991 text "quite clear" in allowing for a state of emergency to be declared in several cases that resemble the present situation in Russia's North Caucasus. He cites as examples attempts to overthrow constitutional order, conflicts among national minorities, and threats to people's safety. But Popov stresses that under the 1991 law the state of emergency would apply only to that part of Russia where such threats are present. He says that means that today "a state of emergency in the regions bordering Chechnya could be imposed. But in the rest of the country," he adds, "it would not apply--not even in Moscow."

According to Popov, therefore, Yeltsin does not have the legal right to cancel or postpone the upcoming Duma elections. Under the Russian Constitution, Yeltsin is allowed to introduce a state of emergency in the whole country or in certain parts of it. But he has to ask the governors and heads of regional parliaments of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house, to confirm it. Popov says: "The atmosphere in Russia would really have to be extreme for the senators to accept measures that would limit their own powers."

Yet some politicians warn that the 1991 Soviet law may not be valid anymore, an interpretation which would create a legal vacuum on emergency measures. Former Security Council Secretary and Duma deputy Ivan Rybkin says the legitimacy of the Soviet state of emergency law is disputable because it was abrogated by new Russian legislation that partially contradicts it.

Whatever the validity of the Soviet state of emergency law may be, other Russian politicians note that the government could legally introduce extreme measures that partially resemble a state of emergency by using other legislation.

Senator Sergei Sobyanin, deputy chairman of the Federation Council's legal affairs committee, says that a law on fighting terrorism that was adopted last year does allow authorities to "limit citizens' freedom of movement and to introduce limits on the press." Moreover, he says, this is possible without any parliamentary or other institutional authorization.

According to "Segodnya," Putin has referred to the 1998 law as a text that could be used by the government. The paper said the prime minister believed it made the proclamation of a state of emergency unnecessary.

Senator Sobyanin said the security measures announced by Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov in the past few days "seem to be inspired by this law." He was apparently referring to the mayor's order making the city off-limits to people who don't have an official authorization of residence.

Others say, however, that by imposing the limitations permitted in last year's law on fighting terrorism, the authorities might actually be bending the law. Popov, for one, says that "any reference to the [1998] law on terrorism is completely ridiculous. That law, for example, applies to a building or a street where terrorists may be hiding. But it does not apply to a whole city or the whole country."