Russians Scan the Fine Print In Yeltsin's Constitution

Critics say the charter offers few strong checks on the power of the president

BORIS YELTSIN has kicked off a campaign to drum up public support for his proposed constitution by telling the Russian people that his new and improved charter is their best guarantee against dictatorship.

But opponents of the draft, which was made public earlier this week, say it puts too much power in the hands of the president, paving the way for further confrontation between the executive and legislative branches.

The document, which will replace the 1978 constitution adopted under Leonid Brezhnev, creates an independent president, parliament, and judiciary. It also gives the nation's chief executive the right to appoint the prime minister and Cabinet and propose candidates for Central Bank chairman, public prosecutor, and all the country's top judgeships.

The proposed draft will be put to a nationwide referendum on Dec. 12, the same day as elections to the new Federal Assembly, or bicameral parliament, that will replace the Soviet-era, Communist-dominated parliament that Mr. Yeltsin dissolved Sept. 21.

``A constitution containing a gentleman's set of freedoms, rights, and democratic institutions will be adopted on Dec. 12,'' wrote Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of the influential daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Tuesday. ``But it will be a constitution for the president in general, and for President Yeltsin in particular.''

Under the draft, parliament has the right to reject nominations for prime minister. But if it rejects three nominations in a row, the president has the right to appoint his own and call new parliamentary elections.

Similarly, the parliament's ability to impeach the president is reduced, as it can do so only with approval from the Constitutional Court and two-thirds approval from both of its chambers. Constitutional amendments also require two-thirds approval.

Division of powers between the president and parliament is crucial, as this was the focal point of the prolonged power struggle that led to the armed assault against Moscow's White House last month. But critics say the draft increases the Russian president's power too much, making him the most powerful leader in Europe.

``In 1906 when the Basic Law [or constitution] was published, the monarch took on less powers [than Yeltsin is taking now],'' the liberal Komsomolskaya Pravda daily argued in an angry editorial Wednesday.

``If the president is not able to fulfill his duties for some reason, Russia might get a constitution that is tailored for the reformist leader, and elect a reactionary who will make full use of broad possibilities that exist in the draft,'' the liberal Sevodnya newspaper warned yesterday.

A majority of at least 50 percent of all voters eligible to participate in the referendum must approve the draft for it to be adopted. Thirteen election blocs so far have registered with Russia's electoral commission to run in the elections; another eight - mainly anti-Yeltsin parties - were disqualified for petition-list irregularities.

Yeltsin has stalwartly defended his proposed constitution, saying in a televised address earlier this week that his charter protects individual rights.

``The constitution of Russia is a constitution of a democratic republic. No single individual, no single institution, has the right to claim complete power,'' Yeltsin said. ``We need order, but not the horrible repressive order of the Stalinist camps. Russia needs a durable legal order. Not an iron fist, but a democratic state power.''

Molded primarily from the French and United States constitutions, the draft guarantees a multiparty democracy and human rights, including racial, ethnic, and gender equality.

In a break from Russia's communist past, it guarantees citizens the right to land ownership, private property, and privacy. It legalizes business, affirms the right to privacy, free speech, and religion, and discards the idea of a state ideology. It also preserves traditional socialist tenets granting citizens the right to free education, medical care, and housing.

Although Yeltsin's hand-picked Constitutional Assembly toiled for months hammering out the draft, Yeltsin added several last-minute provisional clauses that will be valid during a two-year transitional period. The breathing spell is supposed to give Russia time to build democratic institutions before the new Basic Law takes effect.

One clause limits terms for the first parliament to two years instead of four. Another says Yeltsin can remain in office until his term expires in 1996.

Last week Yeltsin spoke out against early presidential elections, which he promised to hold next June in a compromise with the opposition last month. Although he sought to soften the blow by saying he would not seek reelection, the new draft leaves the door open for the 62-year-old president to change his mind yet again as a clause was deleted that gave a 65-year age limit for presidential hopefuls.

The most important clause change, however, gives Yeltsin increased power over Russia's 88 independence-minded regions by making the Federation Treaty, which was negotiated between him and regional leaders, subordinate to the constitution. Yeltsin curbed their autonomy even more by deleting their sovereign status.

Later, Yeltsin disbanded the governing council in his hometown region of Sverdlovsk after it announced it would hold a referendum on declaring itself an independent Urals Republic.

Speaking to the nation, Yeltsin said that only separatists and ``criminal, mafia-style, corrupt groups'' would be against his draft.

``All those who are for this constitution are those who want neither a dictatorship, nor dictators, nor tyranny, nor violence in Russia,'' he said. ``The constitution establishes a dependable barrier to confrontation between them [branches of power]. It steers power toward consensus, cooperation, and not to a settling of accounts.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.