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Russia: Calls For Constitutional Changes Mount

Moscow, 17 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's persistent health problems have led to a growing chorus of calls for changes to the country's young Constitution.

Yeltsin's prolonged absence from full-time work in the Kremlin has, if anything, focused additional attention on the ambiguities of the document he pushed through in a 1993. The Constitution, which gives vast powers to the president, spells out how the legislature can start impeachment proceedings against the chief of state for "treason" or "serious crimes." But it is virtually silent on the issue of who decides when the president is unfit to govern.

Yeltsin has spent very little of his second presidential term actually behind his desk. For most of the last seven months, he was preparing and recovering from the multiple heart by-pass operation that he underwent in November. After coming down with pneumonia last month, Yeltsin has held sporadic meetings at the Kremlin and at his country residence outside Moscow.

But presidential aides have given no firm date for his return to work. Heart surgeon Renat Akchurin, who operated on Yeltsin, said last week the president would need at least another 10 days -- or more -- to recover from pneumonia. Presidential Spokesman Sergei Yasterzhembsky, in a departure from his usual up-beat statements, said last week Yeltsin is not expected to make a speedy return to the Kremlin.

Amid these gloomy statements, opposition politicians in the State Duma continue to demand Yeltsin's resignation on the grounds of ill health. But the opposition's calls for him to step down appear now to be weakening.

Deputies on Friday failed to pass a resolution calling on Yeltsin to resign, and instead passed a watered-down motion demanding a full report on the state of the president's health by March 1. A similar resolution calling on Yeltsin to step down was passed in principle last month, but deputies were unable to muster enough votes to enable the measure to be fully enacted. Even if it is enacted, the Duma's own legal advisors have said such a resolution would be unconstitutional.

Just before Friday's Duma debate, Yeltsin made his longest public speech in more than a month in a six-minute radio address. In addition to touching on relations with Chechnya and pension payments, Yeltsin rejected calls for constitutional changes.

Yeltsin defended the constitution as what he called "the core of the new Russian statehood." He said it was still too early to consider constitutional changes. But he left the door open to the possibility of future reforms. As he put it: "The demands of life may require changes and additions. However, we should not hurry. It should be a natural process."

Yeltsin's remarks were similar to a statement he issued last month after a meeting with the head of the Constitutional Court. At that time, he called for a vague constitutional "evolution."

The Russian President is expected to touch on constitutional reform when he makes his long-awaited address to the Federation Council, which is now scheduled to take place on March 6. The speech, which aides say the president has been working on for weeks, is widely regarded as a test of Yeltsin's ability to govern.

Yeltsin's apparent rejection of constitutional changes has not prevented others from raising the issue. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov last week called for a meeting of representatives of all branches of government to discuss constitutional reforms in order to redistribute some of the president's power to the parliament.

Even loyal supporters of Yeltsin have suggested the possibility of amending the document. Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroyev said recently that the constitution was not an "icon" and might need to be reassessed.

The Russian media has itself speculated that members of Yeltsin's circle are considering proposing constitutional changes that would give them better control over the succession process. If Yeltsin were to resign or die in office, the constitution requires Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to take over his powers and call fresh elections in three months.

With former Security Council chief Aleksandr Lebed topping popularity polls, many observers believe the Kremlin is considering constitutional changes that would allow Chernomyrdin to serve out Yeltsin's term, along the lines of the U.S. system.

Other proposals include creating a post of vice president or even eliminating direct presidential elections by having the parliament choose the president.

But changing the constitution legally is extremely difficult. Constitutional amendments require not only a two-thirds majority in the Duma, but a three-quarters majority in the Federation Council and approval by two-thirds of the regional legislatures.

Russian reformers, such as Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, say Yeltsin's illness is not the crux of the problem. Instead, says Yavlinsky, the problem is that the constitution itself does not provide for a balance of power, causing the country to drift aimlessly when the president is ill.