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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Humbling Defeat for President

The resolution on constitutional reform adopted Friday by the Congress of People's Deputies represents a crushing defeat for President Boris Yeltsin.


In voting 656 to 184 to adopt the document, the dominant conservative wing of the Congress made great strides toward its long-declared goal of reducing the president to a largely symbolic head of state and acquiring control over the Russian government - and with it, the fate of market reforms in Russia.


The country's market reforms are closely linked to the president. It was Yeltsin who in 1991 plucked the young economist Yegor Gaidar from obscurity and gave him control of the economy. Yeltsin convinced the Congress to give him extra powers to carry out reforms. These resulted in the decrees that freed prices and launched the privatization process.


A majority of legislators, disgruntled by the continuing hardships caused by these reforms, now seek a more gradual transition to a "socially oriented-market economy".


"The majority of the Congress is for conducting one policy, and the president and the executive are conducting another", said Mikhail Chelnokov, a leader of the hardline Russian Unity coalition. "Nowhere in the world are the separation of powers like that. Executive power has to be subordinate to the legislature".


The Congres's decision canceled a Dec. 12 compromise deal halting changes to the Constitution that would limit Yeltsin's powers.


At that session, a majority of legislators wanted to change the Constitution to put key government ministers under their control, instead of the president's.


With Friday's decision, the Congress and the working parliament, the Supreme Soviet, are now free to do this.


Russian Unity, which comprises over a third of the Congress, is already proposing changes in the law on government that would give the prime minister the right to choose his deputies and several key economic ministers with the approval of parliament, but without that of the president.


Friday's decision by the Congress also grants the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who replaced Gaidar last December, the right to introduce legislation to parliament. Until now, only Yeltsin, as head of the executive, has had this right.


The significance of this is minimal as long as Yeltsin and the government are, as they have been, united on matters of economic reform. But if legislators were able to place their own candidates in the government, serious conflicts could arise between the government and the president.


The Congres's resolution does make two apparent concessions to Yeltsin, whose team has long argued that to fend off hyperinflation, the government needed to take control of the Central Bank and have final say in matters regarding the state budget.


With Friday's decision, the heads of the Central Bank and the State Property Agency formally become members of the government. The compromise, however, leaves the two officials firmly under parliament's control. Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin had demanded that both answer to the government.


The Congres's resolution also obliges parliament to "take into account" the government's position on any measures pertaining to the budget.


More important, these limited concessions are made to the government - not to Yeltsin. This is not a coincidence, according to Oleg Rumyantsev, a moderate legislator who has shifted from a Yeltsin ally to an occasional opponent.


"We have to do everything to move to a model where the maximum executive power is in the hands of the government and the prime minister", Rumyantsev said, "while the president becomes more a head of state than the head of the administration".


Yeltsin supporters were blunter in their assessment.


"Under the cover of the Constitution, a Communist coup has taken place", said Viktor Belov, one of the Yeltsin supporters who make up about 20 percent of the Congress.


Yeltsin's room to maneuver in response to the Congress becomes increasingly limited under the confines of the country's Soviet-era constitution.


Under Friday's resolution, the president would automatically lose his powers if he tries to change the constitutional set-up of Russia by dissolving the legislature and imposing direct presidential rule. Yeltsin has hinted at such a "final option" for solving the power struggle.


Yeltsin's team is left with one other recourse: pushing ahead with a referendum on who should be in charge in Russia, the president or the legislature.


But many observers believe that Russians, already more concerned about economic hardships than political power struggles, would ignore the referendum by railing to vote. Under the Constitution, a referendum can only pass with an absolute majority of 50 percent of the 106 million registered voters.