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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Referendum on Constitution Set for April 11

The idea that a referendum would undo the Gordian knot of the power deadlock between President Boris Yeltsin and his opponents in the Russian legislature always seemed a little too good to be true.


Legislators at this year's first full session of the 248-member Supreme Soviet, Russia's standing parliament, voted Thursday at the urging of speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov to hold the referendum on its scheduled date, April 11. That is the good news.


The bad news is that after a week of deliberations on April's scheduled referendum on the new constitution, it is clear that the main political forces are far apart on what they want the referendum to decide, if it is to be held at all.


The referendum was called in December to approve principles that will determine the power structure governing the new Russia.


All sides fear that the republics which make up the Russian Federation could use the nationwide volte to assert their own independence, leading to the possible breakup of the country.


Each side has its own agenda regarding the referendum, and no one side can count on the necessary 50 percent of all registered voters in the Russian Federation to support it.


Furthermore, parliament, which has the final say on how the referendum will work, is split among party lines over whether to hold the vote at all.


With the vote a scant three months away, and all the preparations still to be made, no one knows what will happen.


This was the conclusion made by Oleg Rumyantsev, the secretary of Russia's Constitutional Commission and author of the country's draft constitution, after hosting a round-table discussion on the referendum attended by representatives of the major political blocs Wednesday evening.


"Not only are we, at the round-table, unsure about the referendum", Rumyantsev told the meeting, "but so are the president and Khasbulatov".


The situation leaves little room for the optimism that surrounded the December compromise between Yeltsin and Khasbulatov to hold the referendum on a new constitution, which was supported 541-98, with 67 abstentions, by the Congress of People's Deputies, Russia's highest legislature.


Wednesday's talks showed that whatever compromise had been reached in December, the players have reverted back to the positions they held before the agreement was reached. Here is where they stand:


o Rumyantsev, the 31-year-old "founding father", wants to get his constitution adopted, and is pushing to keep the referendum focused on this issue. He has suggested putting off the vote until June.


But Rumyantsev is isolated in his desire to keep party politics out of the referendum. As one talks participant commented: "Aren't you aware, Oleg Germanovich, that the people will not come out for a vote on a constitution? They have other problems".


o Among the hardliners, Vladimir Isakov, a co-leader of the Russian Unity coalition of ultranationalists and Communists, called the proposed nationwide vote "an attempt by Yeltsin to get the people to say 'ye's to something, so that he can continue his present policies".


Ilya Konstantinov, another Unity leader, bluntly stated his bloc's intention to boycott the referendum. Unity favors keeping Russia's current constitution, which was adopted in 1978.


o Centrist legislators, roughly defined by their itinerant allegiance to the Civic Union bloc, on this issue are much closer to the position of Unity, with one exception - in general, they favor adopting a new constitution.


But the centrists would prefer to have parliament adopt the constitution, rather than hold a referendum, partly out of fear of a boycott, and partly because, as one delegate put it, "Lawmakers should vote on this issue, and not some old women and grandmothers".


o In the liberal camp, the Democratic Choice bloc can only claim the allegiance of 15 to 20 percent of the legislature, but its members believe the population is behind them. They have put forward a referendum proposal that resembles the bloc's political platform - clear separation of powers, featuring a strong executive branch, and clear guarantees for private ownership of land.


Despite its weakness in parliament, the alliance has Yeltsin's ear; the president met with Democratic Choice leaders to discuss the referendum Thursday.


o On Yeltsin's team, Sergei Stankevich, a presidential adviser, presented the talks with a formulation that has little to do with a new constitution, and is closer to the call for a referendum Yeltsin made in December that touched off the constitutional crisis.


The referendum, Stankevich said, should ask the nation to approve new elections for the legislature, to eliminate the Congress and establish in its place a two-chambered standing parliament, and to decide the separation of powers the between the president and the legislature.