Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Constitution Drafted Behind Closed Doors

Who will be the founding fathers of the new Russia?


It took 55 men five months to draw up the constitution of the United States from May to September of 1787.


At the latest count, around 700 delegates from all over the country were to collect inside the Kremlin on Saturday to draft a new charter for Russia. According to a tight schedule set by President Boris Yeltsin, they have just 10 days to do it.


But these representatives from the government, the legislature, the 88 republics and regions, trades unions, business and political parties are unlikely to be remembered with saintly awe as founding fathers.


One problem they face is that the time limit they have been set to approve a charter is too tight and their number too large to make them more than a rubber stamp for decisions made behind the heavy closed doors of Kremlin offices.


Another is that the historic questions of how Russia should be reformed as a law-based federation and what kind of rights its citizens should enjoy have been all but drowned by the sound and fury of a power struggle between Yeltsin and the conservative- dominated legislature.


As a result, what might have been viewed as a historic debate is more likely to appear as horsetrading.


If a final text is approved at all, Yeltsin has so constructed the assembly that it is likely to be the child of 43 people who make up a working commission within the assembly, rather than an unmanageable crowd of 700.


Some of these 43 will supervise the five sections into which the assembly is to divide after Saturday's opening session to draw up amendments to Yeltsin's draft charter. The commission as a whole will then decide which proposed amendments should be considered for inclusion in a final text.


"There will be no chattering like at the Congress", Yeltsin said this week, referring to the Congress of People's Deputies, the legislative body that has defeated Yeltsin at a series of sessions in the past year. Using the Constitutional Assembly, Yeltsin is now trying to bypass them.


Made up of 16 members of the Yeltsin administration and cabinet, 19 regional leaders, two judges and six legislators, the 43 working commission members were handpicked to favor the president's draft and should wield considerable influence at the assembly.


The American analogy is a good one because there too the founding fathers represented newly freed regions and were jealous of their autonomy even while they were fusing into a new state.


The question of how much independence the republics and regions should have from Moscow will be the decisive one to answer at Russia's Constitutional Assembly.


Yet the analogy falls down over the dominant role that Yeltsin has carved for the presidency in his draft charter.


One fundamental principle that lies behind the U. S. Constitution regards a balance of powers between the three branches of government, the idea that none should be able to dominate the other.


A New York Times poll taken in May 1987 suggested that 200 years later, that idea was still current.


In the poll, 40 percent of respondents believed power should be shared equally, 20 percent thought the president should have the most influence and 28 percent the U. S. Congress.


By contrast, a recent poll of 1, 009 Muscovites conducted by the Moscow University Center for the Study of Public Opinion used exactly the same questions to find that 33 percent of respondents believed the president should have the most power, against 10 percent for the legislature.


Only 23 percent believed that the three branches should share power equally and only 9 percent thought they in fact do.


If the poll is correct in indicating that Russians still want a strong hand in the Kremlin, it is precisely in order to keep the sprawling federation together. In that case Yeltsin's loading of the assembly that begins Saturday could just be the Russian way.