Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russian Constitutional Change: An Opportunity Missed

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russian Constitutional Change: An Opportunity Missed

Article excerpt

The Russian constitution of 1993 created a hypertrophic presidency invested with enormous powers relative to parliament. For a moment in time, Russia's crisis of 1998 seemed to present an unexpected opportunity for much needed constitutional change. The political maneuvering in the wake of the August financial collapse, including the dismissal of Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, appeared to have a "silver lining," to wit, the possibility of constitutional revision. The ailing and politically weakened President Boris Yeltsin, anxious to reappoint previously dismissed Viktor Chernomyrdin as the new prime minister, offered an olive branch to the parliamentary opposition, including the prospect of amending the 1993 constitution in return for the State Duma's confirmation of his candidate.

The offer was to no avail as Chernomyrdin's candidacy failed twice. A compromise candidate, Evgeny Primakov, then easily sailed through the rough waters of Russian legislative-executive relations and was appointed prime minister in September. Although the urgent tasks on the political agenda in fall 1998 were the formation of a new government and fashioning an economic crisis plan, the possibility of constitutional change, while temporarily dormant, was not dead. Primakov eventually formed his government, although a coherent program to deal with the economic crisis still eluded him at his dismissal in spring 1999. Meanwhile, the prospect of constitutionally revising the relations of power, like flotsam, keeps bobbing up and down in Russia's turbulent politics.

A Rigid Constitution

In 1993, Yeltsin and his constitutional draftsmen deliberately designed Russia's post-Soviet constitution as a rigid document that would be difficult to amend or revise once ratified. Just as generals tend to refight the last war, those charged with designing new constitutions tend to draft reactive documents. The Russian drafters were no exception. In modeling the constitutional amendment procedures after the American example, they were reacting to the heavily conflicted presidential-parliamentary relations of the First Post-Soviet Russian Republic, which had ended in violence in the early fall of 1993. The preceding, much-amended Russian Republic Constitution of 1978 had provided for a flexible and relatively easy amendment procedure. In effect, parliament had the authority to freely amend the constitution and had been doing so extensively since perestroika of the late 1980s, as the Russian elite strove to bring its Brezhnev-era constitution into alignment with the reform tasks then at hand.(1)

With the end of the Soviet Union in late 1991, fissures and then fault lines began to open in the Russian political elite as President Yeltsin and the parliamentary majority entered into an increasingly bitter adversarial relationship over economic reform policy as well as the design of a new constitution. The patchwork, much-revised, still extant Soviet Russian constitution became the battleground, with the parliament constantly threatening to curb the president by constitutionally reducing his powers. When Yeltsin finally prevailed through a bold, extraconstitutional move and gained full control of the constitutional drafting process, he was clearly determined to secure political stability through a pro-presidential constitution coupled with a rigid amendment procedure.

Chapter 9 of the constitution, "Constitutional Amendments and Revisions," embodies a two-part procedure. The distinction is between ordinary amendments and extraordinary revisions of the constitution. Chapters 3 through 8, the operational sections of the charter, are amendable through ordinary procedure, which is described as an amendment passed by supermajorities of both houses of parliament, and then subject to ratification by the legislatures of two-thirds of the eighty-nine subjects of the federation (Art. 136). The procedure for extraordinary revision of the fundamental law pertains to any changes proposed in the constitution's fundamental principles (Chap. …

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