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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What's in the Constitution

As parliament hesitates on the brink of a decision to impeach President Boris Yeltsin, all sides are claiming that the Constitution works in their favor, and power politics appear to have taken over from legal niceties.


But there is an impeachment process outlined in the current, much-amended Brezhnev-era Constitution. and there are specific rules on how the president's referendum should be carried out.


o Article 121. 10 of the Constitution says that the president can be impeached if he violates the Constitution of Russia.


First, Russia's parliament -- the Supreme Soviet -- must ask the Constitutional Court to decide whether the Constitution has in fact been violated.


That happened at an emergency session of the parliament Sunday.


The Court then has to reach a decision on whether the president in fact breached the Constitution.


That occurred after a marathon session of the 13-member court, ending early Tuesday morning.


The Congress of People's Deputies -- and not the smaller parliament -- can then impeach the president by a two-thirds majority of its 1, 033 members "on the basis of the Constitutional Court's decision".


That could yet happen if the parliament calls a session of the Congress when it meets on Wednesday.


This last clause encouraged parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov to call for Yeltsin's impeachment Tuesday. But the wording is woefully unclear on whether the court's decision that Yeltsin breached the Constitution is sufficient for his impeachment, or whether it must also specify that he can now be impeached.


It is over this ambiguity that the president's staff and the legislature were drawing their battle lines Tuesday. Sources at the court said that a full impeachment clause was included in an early draft of the court's decision, but that it was taken out of the final version.


o The Constitution states that after impeachment, the president's mantle passes to the vice president -- in this case, Alexander Rutskoi. If the vice president cannot take the job, it goes to the prime minister -- currently, Viktor Chernomyrdin. and failing that, to the chairman of the Supreme Soviet -- it would be Khasbulatov.


One rumor circulating the halls of the Supreme Soviet on Tuesday was that Khasbulatov had postponed the parliament session only two hours after calling for Yeltsin impeachment not out of sensitivity for the death of the president's mother, but because Rutskoi would not agree to become president.


o There is also a second route to impeachment in the Constitution. Under article 121. 6, Yeltsin automatically loses all of his powers if he attempts to change the structure of Russia's state or prevents another branch of government from working.


This clause was one of the main battlegrounds over which Yeltsin fought with the deputies at the two last sessions of the Congress. It was designed to make it impossible for him to dissolve the legislature.


o As for the matter of the proposed April 25 vote, officials in Yeltsin's press office said Tuesday that because he had not yet signed his decree on special rule for Russia, they did not know whether he was planning a simple opinion poll or a full-fledged referendum. So far, a spokesman said, it is only "a vote of confidence".


A non-binding opinion poll would require a "yes" vote from a simple majority of the voters who turn out. A referendum, which is constitutionally binding, would require a "yes" vote from more than 50 percent of all registered voters -- or approximately 53 million people. That is considered almost impossible to achieve.


According to Sergei Zasukhin, a parliamentarian who belongs to the pro-Yeltsin Democratic Russia faction, a nonbinding poll would be sufficient in the current atmosphere of hardball power-politics.


"The Supreme Soviet could not do anything to counter Yeltsin's opinion poll", said Zasukhin. "It would look as if they were acting against their own people".