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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The 'Pivot of the State'

Washington, 18 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The continuing struggle between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament highlights the importance of a constitution in regulating the life of a state governed by law.

It also points to the limitations of any constitutional document designed for particular personalities rather than for the political system as a whole.

On Friday, Yeltsin responded publicly to recent efforts by his opponents in the parliament to modify the December 1993 Russian constitution and limit the enormous powers that that document confers on him as president.

In a five-minute radio address, he argued that "the constitution is the pivot of the new Russian state" and must not be changed anytime soon, especially in response to the mood of the moment. Indeed, he said, any changes would be both "premature" and "foolhardy" and would subject the Russian state, "even as it is being built," to a test of its durability.

At the level of general principles, Yeltsin's arguments are consistent with international practice. Constitutions are made to regulate the operation of a state over a long period of time. They are intended to prevent popular enthusiasms from overwhelming basic principles. And consequently, the Russian constitution, like most others, was designed to be difficult to amend.

But on a more practical level, Yeltsin's arguments are less convincing. First of all, he is invoking the constitution to defend his own powers. He would be more convincing in his defense of that document now if he had always lived up to its provisions when they have worked against him. That, as even his supporters would concede, has not always been the case.

Second, the Russian president errs when he argues that constitutions should not be modified in the first years after their original adoption. That is precisely when most amendments are offered and accepted. In the case of the American constitution, for example, nearly half of all amendments agreed to -- 12 of 27 -- were adopted in the first 20 years after the original document was signed.

The reason for this is not far to seek: The initial period is when people are likely to discover the greatest number of defects or limitations in the original document. And the sprawling Russian constitution, with its 137 articles, is replete with places where the document's meaning or intent are unclear.

Indeed, the failure of the 1993 Russian constitution to define presidential "disability" or to specify who will decide when a president is suffering a sufficient disability to be removed is at the heart of much of the current controversy between Yeltsin and the Russian Duma.

Yeltsin and his supporters argue that in the absence of any clearly expressed constitutional arrangement, he and he alone has the right to make that determination. His opponents argue that the parliament should have that right. And most Russian legal specialists call for a definition of the situation by amendment or law, something Yeltsin wants to avoid.

And third, Yeltsin's defense of the current Russian constitution is weakened by the way in which he drafted the document and the manner in which he pushed through its ratification.

Yeltsin drafted the current Russian constitution for himself. In the wake of his clash with the old Russian parliament in October 1993, Yeltsin and his team drafted a document that gave the president enormous, even overwhelming power.

It gave him the ability to dissolve parliament, to rule by decree, to control Moscow's relations with Russia's farflung regions, and to dominate the judiciary. As such, the Yeltsin constitution failed to provide for any real separation of powers within the federal government or any real federalism between it and the regions.

Yeltsin's supporters at home and abroad suggested then that he needed these extraordinary powers to push through democratic and free market reforms.

But then, many in Russia and abroad questioned whether such powers -- precisely because of their "extraordinary" nature -- should be constitutionally concentrated in the office of the Russian president where they might some day be misused by Yeltsin or even more, by someone else like communist Gennady Zyuganov or nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

And this sense that the 1993 constitution was simply a device for Yeltsin to get his way was reinforced by the way in which it was ratified.

At the very least, during the December 1993 ratification vote, the Russian electoral commission played fast and loose with the numbers of total electors in order to declare that the constitution had been approved by a narrow majority of all eligible voters.

For all three of these reasons, then, Yeltsin's defense of his constitution is unlikely to stop those who will seek to change it.