Political crisis in Russia : the regional dimension / Irina Busygina. - Bonn, 1993 (Studie der Abteilung Außenpolitikforschung im Forschungsinstitut der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung ; 58). - ISBN 3-86077-112-4


4. The Constitutional Battles

In April-May 1993 the all-Russian Center for Investigation of Public Opinion (VZIOM) conducted an opinion poll. [ Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 22, 1993, p. 5.] They questioned 200 experts regarding the problems of the political and economic development of Russia. Most of the experts believed that Russia would preserve its identity (only 5% against). Only 26% expected separatist trends to become stronger. The experts saw the most likely outcome of current developments in the creation of new Federation subjects through the merging of administrative units enjoying the status of the republics - for example, Srednerusskaya, Sibirskaya, Primorskaya, Ural republics. From this relatively optimistic outlook, one result of the poll was strikingly different: only 11% of the experts considered a federative structure to be the best form for Russia’s political organization. History will prove whether the experts were right in general or not, but the events of the following summer clearly showed that the federative structure of Russia represented a barrier which the Constitutional Assembly was unable to overcome.

By summer 1993, the regional development of Russia was marked by three main processes. [ The analysis was carried out by the experts of the Institute of Geography (Russian Academy of Sciences). See Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 11, 1993, p. 1-2.]

1. Growing political apathy in most of the population, which neglects to participate in the formation of regional elites;

2. The return of the old „nomenclatura" to power. Only political disorder brought „outsiders" to the top of the regional hierarchy. In most of these cases such people were unable to establish themselves, to „take root" without the support of their „own" team;

3. The emerging conflict between the legislative and executive branches of power in the regions.

In general these processes revealed a very important phenomenon: the development of regional political elites, which by now had largely run its course. In other words, by summer 1993 the circle of professional politicians was almost formed in which the political struggle would occur and competences would be transferred.

No one doubted the need to adopt a new constitution for Russia. The constitution currently in force was eclectic, contained serious contradictions and did not reflect reality.

The draft of the new constitution was published on 30 April. It was examined by the subjects of the Federation and at the beginning of summer the President called for the formation of a constitutional assembly to discuss the draft, make observations and compromises. [ Participants in the meetings of this body were the representatives of the regions, political parties, public movements, trade unions, leading lawyers and experts.] Yeltsin especially stressed that the new constitution should be the fruit of all the subjects of the Federation. [ Izvestia, May 7, 1993, p. 1-2.] It was from this time that he began to realize that the regions were the one and only force to which he could appeal in developing (and later adopting) a new constitution. However, the priority was still on the national republics. [ This was proved in particular by the visit of President Yeltsin to Yakutia-Sakha (18-19 June 1993). The President began to search for the support of the republican elites from Sakha for three reasons. First, here he got more than 70% of the votes at the April referendum; second, this republic is very significant because of its natural resources (primarily diamonds); third, the President of Sakha, M. Nikolaev, is more "pro-Yeltsin" than the other republican leaders.] Without any exaggeration one can state that the Constitutional Assembly worked very hard. But the idea of Russia’s federative structure did not give up inspite of all the efforts - the compromise between the republics and territorial units was not achieved. Neither side was willing to give in.

I would argue that, for the most part, the way towards the new constitution was blocked by the excessive claims of the republics. In general these claims could be described as the following:

1. The republics insisted on including in the new constitution the full texts of the three Federation Treaties.

This not only would make the text of the constitution too vague, but also would stress the basic role of the Treaties and diminsih the role of the Basic Law. [ On 25 June, the day before the plenary meeting of the Constitutional Assembly, the representatives of 42 regions signed a sharp declaration with the demand to establish Russia as a constitutional federation. They threatened Moscow with a recall of their signatures under the Federative Treaty.]

2. The republics insisted on being defined as „sovereign states" in the text of the new constitution.

Such a definition leads to at least two contradictions. First, it contradicts the sovereignty of the Federation as a whole, because it is impossible to have two sovereigns covering one territory. Second, after adopting this definition one could only have spoken about the transformation of Russia into a confederation (also enjoying a particular structure).

Kray and oblast, naturally, protested strongly against such a definition. According to their proposals, all the subjects of the Federation should enjoy equal economic and political rights, with one exception: Kray and oblast do not need attributes of their own statehood such as flag, seal and hymn.

The claims of the republics naturally generated irritation in the regional elites. They stated firmly that if the definition of the republics as sovereign states is adopted, the other regions would immediately start to raise their status to that of republics. [ The first signs of this were the declarations of the Vologda and Ural republics (the latter on 1 July). Primorije (Far East), Chelyabinsk, Tula, Rostov oblast and Krasnoyarsk kray were ready to do the same. Moreover, the leaders of Irkutsk oblast proposed to the leaders of Krasnoyarsk kray to unite their territories and establish one republic. These regions belong to the richest in Siberia and actually have much in common in economic terms ( Izvestia, June 23, 1993, p. 6; Izvestia, July 3, 1993, p. 2; Moscow News, August 1, 1993, p. 8).]

One observation is worth making. Despite the fact that President Yeltsin formally expressed his disapproval of such regional activity, it was an open secret that within his own team there was no definitive negative reaction in this respect. Moreover, it is possible that „reasonable" sovereignization in the regions was to an extent encouraged by Moscow in order to create a counter balance to the claims of the national republics. [ Moscow News, August 1, 1993, p. 8.]

3. The republics rejected the formula according to which land and natural resources can be in state, private or other forms of ownership and belong to the people who live on the corresponding territories and to all the people of the Russian Federation.

This shows the desire of those republics rich in natural resources to keep these separate from the Federation, in order to use them individually and without any control from the Center.

4. The republics wanted to increase disproportionately their influence upon the upper chamber of the new parliament (Federation Council), demanding one half of the seats there.

This would again have led to the domination of the titular nations, infringing the rights of the citizens.

In the first draft of the constitution it was stated (article 85) that national formations in Russia should not have less representation in the Federation Council than „Russian" oblast and kray, i.e. 50%, or 114 seats each. The logic which determined this decision was not very sophisticated. The „Russian" regions would have a majority (up to 75%) in the State Duma (lower chamber of the new parliament), so at least the upper chamber would be balanced. In the final draft, this article (in the new edition N94) was changed so that every subject of the Federation would send two representatives to the Fedeation Council. Therefore, 32 „national" subjects would receive 64 seats, and 57 kray, oblast and federal cities would together receive 114 seats.

During the meetings of the Constitutional Assembly the conflicts among the different regional types were clearly revealed. Perhaps an important result of the Assembly was to show the lines of these conflicts.

However, this development caused a lot of pessimism throughout the country. Deputy Prime Minister S. Shakhray, who had worked tremendously hard to achieve a compromise among different regional interests, had to admit that at this point it was absolutely impossible to coordinate the principles of the federative structure between republics, kray and oblast. The only possible solution he saw was to delay these problems, leave the chapters which related to the federative structure of Russia as they were in the „old" constitution, and concentrate now on adopting a „small" constitution for the transitional period. [ Izvestia, September 15, 1993, p. 2.] In other words, the „asymmetric" federation had to be preserved. Otherwise, Russia would find itself in a deadlock, for the problems of federalism would block the further development of the whole country.

At the end of the last plenary meeting of the Constitutional Assembly (12 July) the decision was made for all subjects of the Federation to discuss the draft of the constitution at their Soviets and the possibilities of adopting it. Paradoxically, however, only Soviets examined, discussed and improved a draft which practically denied the very term „Soviet".

It did not come as a surprise, however, that Russia’s Supreme Soviet undertook a counter-attack. It sent the regions the draft of the new constitution prepared by the Constitutional Commission, [ For two years the Constitutional Commission has worked within the Supreme Soviet on the draft of the new Constitution.] which presented a dilemma to the regional Soviets. According to the constitution in force at the time, they were required to submit the draft to the Supreme Soviet. To avoid this contradiction, the Council of the heads of the Republics on 13 August decided that work on the draft should be continued by both bodies: the Constitutional Assembly and Constitutional Commission. [ It was a certain move because practically all the members of the Consitutional Commission worked also at the Constitutional Assembly.]

The subjects of the Federation gave a rather cool first reaction to the draft of the constitution. Such a position is understandable - neither national formations nor territorial units were satisfied with it. One sign, however, looked dangerous: In some regions all the drafts of the constitution were rejected by the local Soviets. [ For example, in Penza oblast the deputies rejected all the drafts of the constitution except the "communist" one, proposed by the deputy of the Russian Federation, J. Slobodkin ( Izvestia, August 17, 1993, p. 2.)]

Besides all these difficulties, one very important issue remained entirely unclear - the legitimate mechanism of the adoption of the new constitution. The only legitimate way of doing it - through the Congress of People’s Deputies - was blocked because the Congress would not have passed the new constitution. To adopt it by a special decree of the President represented a radical and unconstitutional course.

The President chose an intermediate route, legitimate at least in part. If the subjects of the Federation had adopted the new constitution at their Soviets, this could have been something really serious, which even the Supreme Council would not have dared to ignore. That is why the hopes of the President were connected with the creation of a new superior body, the Federation Council - the collective voice of Russia’s regions.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek | 9.1. 1998

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