Constitutional Law and Politics in Russia: Surviving the First Decade

By Sharlet, Robert | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Constitutional Law and Politics in Russia: Surviving the First Decade


Sharlet, Robert, Demokratizatsiya


Law in the post-Stalin Soviet system became increasingly important as an instrument of governance, but until nearly the end of the USSR it remained firmly subordinate to the politics of the Communist Party (CPSU). Only in the final years of the Soviet system under Mikhail Gorbachev did law begin to achieve some limited autonomy within the restructuring political system. Constitutional law became the leading edge of this incipient change in the late 1980s. Before then, the USSR Constitution of 1977 had been amended but once in a very minor and inconsequential way. However, in 1988, Gorbachev began an extensive process of constitutional reform that radically restructured the Soviet political and electoral systems. The subsequent revision of Article 6, the clause assigning monopoly power to the CPSU, accelerated the erosion of the party's hegemonic rule. Within a few short years, Gorbachev's legal revolution from above had inadvertently contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. Thus, on the cusp of the post-Soviet era in Russian history in late 1991 and early 1992, law had finally emerged as an essential subject of study for anyone trying to understand Russia's transition from authoritarianism to democracy and the rule of law.

Even before the end of the USSR, the Soviet Russian Republic (RSFSR) under Boris Yeltsin's leadership had been moving rapidly along a parallel track of constitutional reform, with the revision and eventual replacement of the RSFSR Constitution of 1978. After 1991, the task of replacing the document with a post-Soviet, democratic constitution, and then governing within the new constitutional parameters, proved to be arduous and challenging. Still, as we look back on Russia's first decade, we see that the young polity managed to survive no fewer than five critical moments in its difficult transition. A key factor in getting through the crises of transition was the governing elite's gradually deepening commitment to reliance on legal process for the resolution of political conflict. In retrospect, any one of those crises could have derailed the democratic transformation project, or even doomed it altogether. Fortunately, Russia not only survived its tumultuous decade of change and crisis, but became more constitutionally tempered and politically stable in the process.

Critical Tests of Russia's Transitional Political System

The critical moments I will briefly discuss in this essay include (a) the collapse of the first post-Soviet Russian republic in 1993; (b) internal war--the first Chechen conflict, 1994-96; (c) the economic crisis of August 1998; (d) the first transfer of power, 1999-2000; and (e) the challenge of growing a constitutional culture during the first decade, 1992-2002.

Surviving the Collapse of the First Republic

The Russian Federation survived the profound constitutional crisis between president and parliament that led in fall 1993 to the collapse of the first post-Soviet Russian republic. The constitutional collision was a consequence of the heavily amended 1978 Soviet Russian Constitution, under which the first republic was governed. A patchwork document pending completion of a new constitution, it incompatibly grafted an executive presidency endowed with strong powers onto a constitution that proclaimed parliamentary supremacy, a constitutional fiction of the Soviet period. Yes, President Yeltsin resorted to extraconstitutional means in September 1993 to overcome the deadlock and, ultimately, in response to the violence incited by parliament, shut the institution down with tanks in early October. At the end of a brief interregnum in December, however, generally free and fair elections for a new parliament were held simultaneously with a referendum on a post-Soviet Russian constitution. Indeed, Yeltsin had ensured that the draft charter favored a strong executive, and the turnout numbers required for a legally certified referendum were apparently fudged, but contrary to dire predictions in Russia and abroad, there was no return to authoritarianism. …

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