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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Parliament and Yeltsin To Resume Power Play

Parliamentary leaders set the agenda Monday for the timing and rules of a referendum on a new constitution, stamping their authority on a vote that could decide the division of powers in Russia's government.


Parliament convenes this week for its first session of the new year, and the presidium's resolution made it clear that the main problem legislators face will be a leftover from 1992 - their struggle with President Boris Yeltsin over who, ultimately, is to control the country.


Yeltsin also returned to the constitutional issue Monday according to a report from Interfax, meeting with the Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin to discuss the referendum and the separation of powers.


The presidium order told the Constitutional Commission to provide a draft of the basic provisions of Russia's new constitution by Jan. 15 for approval as the text to be used in the referendum.


The resolution also gave parliament until March 1 to approve a final draft for the referendum. That vote, according to an agreement reached between Yeltsin and legislators at the end of December's session of the Congress of People's Deputies, will be held on April 11.


The basic principles for the constitution that will be presented to voters could decide the fundamental question of whether Russia becomes a presidential or parliamentary republic, an issue that was at the heart of Yeltsin's battle with the 1, 040 member Congress in December.


Yeltsin's supporters in the legislature immediately reacted to the resolution at a meeting of the Democratic Choice bloc. They said parliament was taking too much control over the referendum - which had been the president's initiative - into its own hands.


"It's like a 100-meter dash in which one of the contestants, in this case the Supreme Soviet, starts at the 50-meter mark", said Kirill Ignatiyev, a leader of Democratic Choice.


"The legislature can change the rules. They have a monopoly on power over the referendum, while the president has no rights".


Democratic Choice proposed its own text for the referendum, which would write in stone a three-branch government with separate powers ensured by a system of checks and balances.


It would also establish a two-house parliament, eliminating the Congress of People's Deputies; confirm the president's authority in naming members of the cabinet; and confirm the right to private ownership of land.


All of these proposals will meet resistance in the parliament, which after the rotation of some members in December has a new and more conservative look. A mere 20, rather than 27 percent of the deputies are now counted as Yeltsin supporters.


Parliament's leadership also lost two Yeltsin sympathizers. Sergei Filatov, a former deputy speaker, was named Yeltsin's chief of staff last week. In December, Yury Yarov, another liberal-leaning deputy speaker, left his position for a post as a deputy prime minister in the cabinet.


Yeltsin called for the referendum as a concession from legislators during the two-week-long Congress. He hoped to replace Russia's anachronistic 1978 Constitution, which poorly defines the separation of powers between parliament and the president.


But Yeltsin and the majority of legislators are far apart on the question of how much power the other side should have, indicating that the dispute may not be solved soon.


Committed hardliners make up only about 20 percent of the legislature. But the overwhelming majority of lawmakers favor a parliamentary republic in which the president would have a largely symbolic post as head of state, much like the German president.


"Right now, our president is like an absolute monarch, with an unchecked power to rule by decree", said Oleg Plotnikov, of the centrist Change-New Politics faction.


"With our tradition of totalitarian-ism, that kind of president is very dangerous. There is no guarantee against the president usurping power".


Plotnikov said parliament would "never pass" the constitution in its current form and that, even if it did, the more conservative Congress would resist writing itself out of existence.


Speaking at the Democratic Choice meeting, Secretary of the Constitutional Commission Oleg Rumyantsev expressed concern that the referendum may not, in any case, draw the required 50 percent of Russia's electorate to the polls.


Rumyantsev said that entire regions of the country, in particular the Moslem republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, might boycott the vote due to the limits it is likely to impose on their sovereignty. He proposed delaying the vote until June, to give local authorities more time to prepare the electorate.


A second question that is sure to cause friction when parliament convenes is ratification of the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty, signed Jan. 3 by Yeltsin and President George Bush.


Parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov said Monday that the agreement needed close scrutiny, while the legislature's nationalists want substantial amendments made to the treaty, which they see as weakening Russia's ability to defend itself.


That position will not go over well with the government. Speaking to a group of lawmakers who support the Yeltsin, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Berdennikov said that it was "absolutely out of the question" to consider any changes to START II, "because in this case the American side would also try to amend the treaty".