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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Disturbing Reminders Of the Past

Russia desperately needs a new constitution and it could well be that President Boris Yeltsin's highly stage-managed constitutional assembly is the only way to get one. But stage-managed it is and in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of the Communist Party conferences of the Soviet Union.


The composition of the assembly was loaded from the start. This meeting, as Yeltsin has made abundantly clear, was not intended as a forum for wide-ranging debate to find new legal foundations for Russia. The president created it as a vehicle to drive through - with as few changes as possible - his draft charter for a Russian republic with strong presidential powers.


Of some 700 delegates to the assembly only a handful are Yeltsin opponents. If there were any doubts that this was Yeltsin's party, thrown in Russia's name but with opponents of the president marked as gate-crashers, the sight of parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov being prevented from speaking Saturday has put those to rest.


As Yeltsin's supporters inside the assembly clapped derisively to drown Khasbulatov's voice, there was an inevitable comparison with the treatment of dissidents by the leadership of the former Soviet Union. History took a similarly grotesque turn - placing a Marxist ideologue in the role of dissident - when legislator Yury Slobodkin was carried bodily from the hall by the president's bodyguards.


Conservative appeals to save democracy from Boris Yeltsin invoke precious little sympathy, not least because Khasbulatov was probably hoping for this kind of televised rough treatment to support his cause.


He may have miscalculated, however. There is good reason to believe that Russian viewers will be reassured - rather than horrified - by the sight of Yeltsin visibly taking charge after months of power struggle and broken compromises between himself and the mainly conservative legislature. Certainly, the president and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin smiled broadly while Khasbulatov tried to shout over the din, giving a theatrical demonstration of who the bosses are now.


Much harder than silencing Khasbulatov, however, will be the task of winning over the heads of Russia's 88 republics and regions, who are likely to demand a large degree of autonomy in exchange for signing the constitution.


There should be no illusions about the nature of debate at Yeltsin's assembly. Democratic compromise between the president and his opponents failed when the Congress tried to impeach him in April. Now Yeltsin is trying to ram his will through regardless of democratic or legal niceties.