Public Opinion and the Constitutional Referendum
Timothy J. Colton
IT WAS the vicious quarrel over how to recast its Soviet-era constitution that killed the so-called First Russian Republic and dragged the country to the verge of civil war in 1993. The "step-by-step constitutional reform" Boris Yeltsin unveiled September 21 foisted the problem on the soon-to- be-elected Federal Assembly. This "wholly unprecedented or at least highly bizarre procedure" 1 carried mountainous risks: were the assembly not to adopt a constitutional bill with dispatch and in language palatable to Yeltsin, it would strand him, Russia, and itself in legal limbo. In the aftermath of the military showdown with the outgoing parliament and its defenders two weeks later, the president executed a hairpin turn and concluded he would rather wager on public opinion than on a future parliament. 2 He decreed October 15 that a binding national referendum on a draft constitution would take place to coincide with the general election on December 12. Having to pause for his constitutional convention to reconvene, he did not promulgate a finished text until November 10, a mere thirty-two days before the dual event.
The edict of October 15, skirting the requirement of Russia's statute on referendums that a simple majority of the electorate affirm any question put before it, stipulated that the new constitution would go into effect so long as turnout reached 50 percent and half of those participating--25 percent of all eligible voters-concurred. 3 It transpired that turnout December 12 was 54.8 percent, by tally of the Central Electoral Commission, and the assent-