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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President or Tsar? Yeltsin's Vast Powers

From modest beginnings, President Boris Yeltsin has created a job that gives him more power than any other elected world leader, enabling him to ignore the will of parliament, rule by decree and install his own nominee in every key post in the country -- all in accordance with a constitution drafted under his supervision.


They are powers that have caused his rivals in the June elections to shudder. The liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky said he was not campaigning too hard for the State Duma elections last December because he was saving his efforts for "the election of the tsar," namely the president.


Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov went even further, describing the powers of the president as "greater than the Egyptian pharaoh, the Russian tsar and the Soviet Communist Party General Secretary all put together."


None of this applied when Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federation in June 1991. He was not even head of state, that post still being occupied by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. The powers of the Russian president were undefined, and it was left to Yeltsin -- and history -- to carve them out.


"Yeltsin was elected to an office that had no definition whatsoever in the constitution," said Michael McFaul, senior associate of the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. "That is why you had the events of October 1993. Rather than get the definition of the office right first and then have the elections, they did it backwards."


History came first to Yeltsin's aid in August 1991, when the failed putsch against Gorbachev broke the deadlock in the power struggle between the two men that had gone on since Yeltsin's political comeback in elections to the Congress of People's Deputies, the last Soviet parliament, two years earlier.


When Yeltsin, waving a Russian tricolor, mounted a tank in front of the White House to condemn the putschists, his battle against his rival was effectively over. Gorbachev re-emerged from his brief Crimean house arrest a broken man, clinging to office for another four months while his country fell apart around him.


Despite his shaky constitutional position, Yeltsin in the meantime worked hard to consolidate his power, banning the Communist Party and dismantling Soviet institutions. By Gorbachev's resignation on Dec. 25, Yeltsin was the undisputed leader of Russia. But it took nearly two more years and another, much bloodier, power struggle for Yeltsin to have that leadership confirmed and its powers defined.


Initially, the Supreme Soviet, the parliament of Russia, granted Yeltsin special powers to rule by decree which he used to launch his initial "shock therapy" reforms. But these powers lapsed in 1992, and the Soviet-era constitution simply gave no answer as to whether president or parliament was more powerful. The resulting confusion locked Yeltsin and parliament in a bitter deadlock for most of 1993.


That struggle was finally resolved in October 1993, when for the second time in just over two years, tanks appeared on the streets of Moscow, this time with their guns pointed at the same White House that Yeltsin had previously defended. Yeltsin bombarded his opponents into submission, clapped their leaders into jail, and called new elections and the drafting of a new constitution that would clearly define the powers of both the president and the legislature.


In fact, the new constitution, adopted by popular vote on Dec. 12, 1993, resolved the anarchy of 1993 by handing over to the office of president virtually supreme power over all other arms of government.


In Articles 80 to 93 of the constitution, the president's office is defined as a virtually impregnable fortress. It gives Yeltsin limitless powers to sign decrees with the force of law as well as to block parliamentary legislation by presidential veto, an option he has used scores of times over the past 2 1/2 years.


Yeltsin also has the power to appoint the prime minister, the government and the top officials in the judiciary and main financial institutions. Even where parliamentary approval is required for appointments, Yeltsin has often ignored the issue.


As commander-in-chief, the president exercises control over all senior posts in the military and the deployment of the armed forces. He has bolstered these already huge powers with the creation of various Kremlin institutions, such as political and economic think-tanks and a "bodyguard" thought to number as many as 20,000 men.


While the constitution does provide a mechanism for the impeachment by parliament of the president in the event of his violating his own statutes -- or his removal on health grounds -- in practice this would be very hard to do, as it would require parliament's upper house, the Federation Council, traditionally a bastion of support for Yeltsin, to put its demand for such a move to the Constitutional Court.


The State Duma, the stronghold of the opposition, is empowered to vote no-confidence in the government, but not in the president. But even if the Duma does vote down the government, the president can simply choose to dissolve it.


In theory, laws once passed take precedence over presidential decrees. But in practice, given the weakness of the Constitutional Court and the strength of the president's apparat, Yeltsin can ignore laws if he uses his influence.


In fact, virtually the only checks to the president's powers are provided by the electoral process. Yeltsin, the only Russian leader in history to owe his position to a popular vote, has left that option open to the people.


Elections must be held every four years and no president may serve more than two terms. Unless Yeltsin decides to tear up the constitution that he put in place -- and with it any democratic credentials he has kept over the last five stormy years -- he cannot remain president after June 2000.


The weakness behind the system is the absence of any mechanisms to cultivate political development or encourage consistency. While Yeltsin remains president, he is free to do virtually what he will. But without any built-in need to forge political alliances, to introduce legislation in coordination, rather than confrontation, with parliament, he has no means of ensuring the succession or the continuation of the process he has set in motion. Nor is he obliged to show any consistency in pursuing that process, a factor that accounts for the violent policy swerves that Russia has undergone in the last years and months.


If Zyuganov were to win the presidential election, he would inherit the sweeping powers that Yeltsin has used so effectively to his own advantage. Before the start of the presidential campaign, he talked about an urgent need to curb the powers of the head of state. In recent weeks, however, he has remained silent on the issue. What Zyuganov would actually do in office if elected is far from clear, but constitutionally he would have ample powers to undertake whatever policies he saw fit.


Similarly, if Yeltsin wins, there are no provisions to ensure that he will fulfill his election promises and apply the pro-reform policies that have characterized the latter weeks of his campaign. The former champions of reform, such as former privatization chief Anatoly Chubais and Russia's Democratic Choice leader Yegor Gaidar, are for the time being back in the Yeltsin camp. But whether their views would hold sway for the next four years -- or even four months -- is far from clear.