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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Proposes to Change Constitution

For the first time since he molded Russia's constitution nearly four years ago, President Boris Yeltsin suggested Thursday he is preparing to change it.

Yeltsin's statement, carried by Itar-Tass, was extremely vague, speaking of constitutional "evolution." But some observers saw it as a clear sign that the ailing president, who turns 66 on Saturday, is preparing for his own succession.

In the statement, Yeltsin, who visited the Kremlin on Thursday to meet with retiring Constitutional Court Chairman Vladimir Tumanov, said he would propose an "evolution" of the basic law in his annual address next month to the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament.

The statement did not specify what changes Yeltsin had in mind. But amending the heavily pro-president constitution has been hot on the lips of politicians since Yeltsin fell ill with double pneumonia Jan. 6.

Analysts said the announcement suggests Yeltsin may be looking for a way to name his own successor to the presidency.

Yeltsin, who hosts French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday, made his second trip to the office in three days.

Evening news broadcasts showed Yeltsin smiling as he gingerly stepped into a room to shake hands with Tumanov. The slimmed-down president looked pale, but he seemed focused as he quietly discussed some documents resting on a desk between them.

"He looks better in real life than he does on television officially was to discuss a replacement for Tumanov, 70, due to retire before his next birthday.

More significantly, however, Yeltsin floated the idea of amending the constitution.

He played the key role in passing it after using tanks to crush a revolt by the predominantly Communist Supreme Soviet in October 1993. He stepped in vigorously when a Constitutional Assembly, with hundreds of revisions, was making his post obsolete. Yeltsin's constitution became revered as a tap root of political democracy and has never been touched.

It is weighted heavily in favor of the president, making the two houses of the parliament -- the State Duma and the Federation Council -- into little more than spirited debating clubs. The president, who can rule largely by decree, nominates his prime minister as well as candidates to the constitutional court.

The idea of taking political weight off the presidency was first unexpectedly suggested by Federation Council Secretary Yegor Stroyev at the start of the month. Usually obedient to Yeltsin, Stroyev said Russia's constitution is "not an icon," and may need to be revised.

Communist State Duma deputy Anatoly Lukyanov was quoted by Izvestia as saying his legislative committee discussed the idea of re-installing the post of vice-presidency earlier this week.

"What Yeltsin said does not surprise me one bit," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies. "This is the last element of a mosaic hatched up by the ruling elite to prevent [Alexander] Lebed from reaching the top."

Lebed, who was purged as Yeltsin's Security Council secretary in October, consistently leads in all major popularity polls. His role in ending the Chechen war has earned him high respect, while his imposing voice and quick wit have made a lasting impression with the public.

But his brief stint in the Yeltsin administration earned him many Kremlin enemies, particularly because he did little to conceal he wanted his boss's job.

Piontkovsky said the "ruling elite," including Yeltsin, are weighing two options to keep Lebed under wraps and reforms currently underway moving well into the next century.

"Yeltsin does not intend to die, of course, but the problem of succession must be solved at some point," Piontkovsky said.

The first possibility now discussed would make the prime minister serve out Yeltsin's full term should the president die in office. The present constitution calls for new elections three months after death in office, making the prime minister an interim president for that time.

The second option, according to Piontkovsky, is to create a "parliamentary assembly" that votes for a president, leaving the public completely out of the process.

Reforms of such sort are extremely difficult to pass. It requires two-thirds majority in the Duma, a three-quarters majority in the Federation Council, and two-thirds majority from Russia's regional councils.

Piontkovsky said the task would be less difficult if all of the political leadership in Moscow united behind it.

His opinion was seconded by former Kremlin spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov, who told Agence France Presse on Thursday the government elite is growing restless as Yeltsin's recovery period drags on.

"The political elite is now panicking, partly because their destiny is completely tied up with that of the president," Kostikov said.