Promise and Pitfalls On Russia's Path To New Constitution


BEYOND the walls of the picturesque red-brick fortress, there is little in Novgorod to distinguish it from other Russian provincial cities.

The city is full of slum-like apartment blocs built in the late 1950s. And the streets are deserted after 8 p.m.

But the fortress, or kremlin, remains a vital link to the city's past, when it had the distinction of being a model of political pluralism in ancient Russia. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the principality of Novgorod was home to the most viable democratic system in Russian history.

At a time when princes ruled throughout most of Russia, the Novgorod veche, or city assembly, was a unique political institution, in which all property holders collectively made decisions, including passing laws, raising taxes, and declaring war and making peace.

The veche, functioning like a parliament, often found itself bitterly divided. But it continued to function until a Muscovite prince conquered Novgorod in 1478. Within a decade Moscow had thoroughly absorbed Novgorod, and Russia was not to see an effective pluralistic system for the next 500 years.

Now Russia is seeking to recapture the essence of the Novgorod veche, as it struggles to emerge as a law-governed state. The keystone of the democratic transformation, according to President Boris Yeltsin, is a new constitution for Russia's Market Age, ensuring the division of power, individual liberties, and property rights.

But experts say that if the new Constitution is to have the desired effect of stabilizing Russia's turbulent political system, the Yeltsin administration must take care not only in framing the new Basic Law, but also in ensuring that it can be enforced.

``History has shown that observing the law was never as important as having the power to back up decisions,'' says Dmitry Gudimenko, a political scientist at Moscow's Institute for Foreign Relations and Global Economy. ``In Russia, might has always made right.''

Creating an atmosphere in which politicians and the population observe the Constitution will take time, Mr. Gudimenko says. Broad popular participation in framing the Basic Law is also necessary. ``If people feel they don't have a voice in the Constitution's adoption, then they will be able to justify violating it in the future, reasoning that it wasn't adopted under fair conditions,'' he says.

Gudimenko is one of many political experts who say President Yeltsin's method for drafting and promulgating the new Constitution increases the chances for continued political turmoil. Under Yeltsin's plan, the proposed text of the new Basic Law was not released by the Yeltsin-convened Constitutional Assembly until yesterday, roughly a month before a popular referendum to consider its adoption.

Critics charge that the drafting process has been undemocratic, conducted in secret by presidential aides, behind closed doors in the Kremlin. This allows insufficient time for debate, they say.

In the process, the incumbent administration is essentially ignoring the key question of promoting a law-abiding culture, Yeltsin critics add.

For those working with the president, the law-abiding issue appears to be of secondary importance. ``We're worried by this topic,'' says St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, chief coordinator of the Constitutional Assembly, ``but I think today this concern is purely hypothetical.

``We should now be worried not so much about creating guarantees for constitutional observance as about working out a normal, detailed constitution.''

The constitutional referendum may end up doing more to promote future conflict than to stabilize the situation, some experts say.

``The adoption by referendum of a constitution that's supposed to last ad infinitum may end up cementing the present conflicts and contradictions in society - both in the institutional sphere....'' says Andranik Migranyan, a member of Yeltsin's advisory council.

One potential problem, experts say, is that a majority in one or more of Russia's 88 regions could reject the draft constitution. Yet the constitution will still win adoption if an overall majority of voters throughout Russia approves it on Dec. 12.

Another problem is the low level of political awareness among Russians, who are used to having everything decided at the top and then forced upon them, Gudimenko says. This virtually guarantees the adoption of the proposed Constitution in the referendum, but also sets the stage for deep disillusion if things don't work as planned.

``For people to vote `no' not only takes courage in Russia, but also requires a realization of what their best interests are,'' Gudimenko says.

``But the majority of people now only think about their daily struggle for existence, not their hypothetical constitutional rights.''

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