Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Speaker Triumphant

The very sight of the opening of the three-sided consultations on the fate of the referendum in the gilded interior of the Kremlin is quite impressive.

But the political significance of this is even more impressive: the speaker of parliament is participating in these talks on an equal footing with the president of the republic. and the fact that the Kremlin was chosen as the venue for these negotiations does not really reflect the scale of the changes that have taken place in the Russian political hierarchy.

It would not be surprising if Ruslan Khasbulatov refused to appear in "the enemy camp" and demanded that the talks take place on some neutral ground, for example, in the President Hotel, as had been planned up until the last moment. In the corridors of the White House now there is a popular joke: Thank God that Yeltsin's office is not in the Hotel Ukraina, or else he would have to meet with Khasbulatov on a raft in the middle of Moscow River.

For almost a year now Ruslan Khasbulatov been trying openly to equate his political status with that of the president. The level of Khasbulatov's ambitions was particularly evident in a series of his public speeches shortly before the beginning of the Seventh Congress. They contained frank suggestions that the president agree to a kind of political trade: The speaker would guarantee the consent of the Congress to a continuation of Yeltsin's special powers for another year, in exchange for Yeltsin's signature on the newly approved parliamentary law "On the Council of Ministers of the Russian Federation", which would have given the Supreme Soviet rigid control over the government structure.

It is likely that Khasbulatov was just bluffing. The level of organization, and of party and factional discipline in the Russian parliament is so low that the even predicting the deputie's actions at any given moment is almost impossible, let alone trying to bend the legislative body to one's will.

It is possible that Boris Yeltsin did not react to Khasbulatov's initiative because he was aware of all of this. But the general result of the December debates was that the speaker has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The plan for the formation of the reconciliation commission, which was charged with finding a way out of the Dec. 10 crisis, included the chairman as a matter of course as an equal partner in negotiations with the president.

The present series of talks will, naturally, be planned along the same lines. President Yeltsin is not conducting negotiations with the Supreme Soviet, and not with the body of deputies from the Congress, but with the speaker, Khasbulatov. Why?

In whose name is Khasbulatov participating in the talks, and for whom is he planning to sign the final document, if there is one?

For the Russian people? But the president, it seems, is the only person in the government whom the people, through their right to a direct and universal vote, have entrusted to represent their interests.

For the parliament, perhaps? But in the Constitution of the Russian Federation still in force there is no mention of such powers in the list of the speaker's functions. There is no mention of anything, in fact, except strictly official organizational duties. If the speaker, according to the Constitution, has the right to conduct negotiations with anyone, then it is with the "legislative organs of the Russian Federation and sovereign states". Certainly not with the president of his own country.

In this situation the role of mediator assumed by the chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin is especially interesting. Zorkin, by his presence at the talks, emphasizes Khasbulatov's clear rise in power.

At least Zorkin can not be accused of inconsistency - the precedent for such an abuse was set at the Congress with his active participation.

Khasbulatov is still fiercely denying accusations that he sees the people's deputies as mere petty clerks in his giant department. But he is certainly not bothered by the prospect of reducing the prerogatives of the deputies to a single one: the right to give legal status to agreements worked out by Ruslan Imranovich in personal discussions with Boris Nikolayevich through an organized, disciplined vote. On the contrary, Khasbulatov openly proclaimed that he had just such a "directorial" power over the Supreme Soviet, and this is becoming the basis of his political power.

It is also surprising that the rich experience of associating with the speaker does not seem to be teaching President Yeltsin any lessons. It is as if he had not already had the opportunity to discover that Khasbulatov is able to guarantee the deputie's support only by a gross violation of legislative procedure, as happened during the final act of the Congress, when the results of the reconciliation commission were being discussed. It is as if Yeltsin is not yet convinced that such violations only deepen and complicate the political crisis in the federal government elite. As if he had not assured himself that Khasbulatov's attempts to unravel this crisis at the fake "round table" would make the idea of national accord into a ridiculous profanation in the face of chaos.

It is probably not that the president does not see all this, but that he is forcing himself not to see it. The referendum initiative turned out to be too risky, and the results of the voting are already apparent. Khasbulatov has won the referendum. As a trophy, he received a new status, in fact if not in law: He is now on an equal footing with the president. and this status must be recognized.

Sergei Parkhomenko is a political observer for the daily newspaper Segodnya.