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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hardest Stage Lies Ahead for Charter

"Today is the end of the very difficult and very important period of preparing a text of a new constitution" - thus declared the president's spokesman after the Constitutional Assembly overwhelmingly approved Boris Yeltsin's proposal for a new charter for Russia.


But the spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, did not mention the fact that the most difficult stage of Yeltsin's plan for constitutional reform - getting his draft charter ratified - had just begun.


Buoyed by the Constitutional Assembly's vote, Yeltsin went on vacation Tuesday, departing for the Novgorod region in northwest Russia.


When he returns in about two weeks, however, the difficult question of how to get the charter adopted will remain, despite Monday's vote of 433-62 in favor of the new constitution.


Yeltsin called the Assembly in June to write up constitution that would eliminate his main rival for power - the Congress of People's Deputies, the top Russian legislature, and the Supreme Soviet, the standing parliament drawn from it.


To override the anti-Yeltsin sentiment that dominates the Congress, which legally is the only body that can ratify a new constitution, Yeltsin is counting on the authority of Russia's 88 regions and republics.


But Monday's vote showed that Yeltsin still does not have the support of the regions and republics, which are dissatisfied over the way power is shared with Moscow under the new draft.


Getting the Assembly's approval of the text was a foregone conclusion for Yeltsin, who handpicked most of the participants. So the "yes" vote by 433 out of the 585 Assembly delegates present did not win the president much ground in getting his charter adopted.


A more significant result came after the vote, when Yeltsin asked delegates to sign the text. Representatives of only 52 of 68 of Russia's geographically defined regions, and only 10 of the country's 20 ethnically defined republics, initialed the document.


On the surface, the support of 62 out of the 88 provinces - a 21st republic, Chechnya, has effectively seceded and did not participate in the Assembly - would seem adequate for the adoption of a new constitution. It easily exceeds the figure of two-thirds of the provinces that Yeltsin's aides say would make ratification legitimate.


The reality is not as simple. The 52 regional leader's signatures by no means guarantee the support of each of those regions for Yeltsin's constitution.


For example, Vadim Solovyov, the governor of Chelyabinsk Region, supports Yeltsin and signed the document. But the Chelyabinsk regional legislature bitterly opposes the president and is unlikely to approve the Assembly's draft charter. Other Russian regions, including the federal cities St. Petersburg and Moscow, are similarly split.


Another problem is that the Assembly's authority to approve draft legislation is questionable. Yeltsin's rebellious vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, told The Moscow Times in an interview Tuesday that none of the leaders had the right to approve the text.


"I don't know who gave them the authority", Rutskoi said. "They need a mandate from their local legislatures. Otherwise, their signature has no more value than an autograph".


The legislatures of the 88 provinces will now review the Assembly's text. Their support would either force the Congress to approve the draft, or give Yeltsin the legitimacy to call new elections to a fresh parliament that would ratify the new constitution.


In his speech on Monday, Yeltsin hinted at the way he would like his Assembly, half of which is composed of regional and republican leaders, to continue its work.


Yeltsin said that the Supreme Soviet should pass laws on fresh elections to a new parliament and on a new system for adopting a constitution. If parliament refused to adopt such laws he said, then the regions and republics should make their suggestions to the Assembly, which would reconvene in August to draw up the legislation.


But heads of regional legislatures took a different stance Monday at a meeting with Ruslan Khasbulatov, who chairs both the Congress and the Supreme Soviet. They agreed not to raise the Constitutional Assembly's status to a "parallel" legislature, and to leave constitutional reform in the hands of the Congress.