Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Anxiety Over Yeltsin Brings Its Own Risk

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told reporters in Davos he would be sending birthday greetings to Russia's president in honor of his 66th year Saturday, and "we should all" send him our best wishes for recovery. And why not? Boris Yeltsin is clearly ill and needs all the good wishes he can get.


This cannot be the happiest birthday Yeltsin has celebrated. The past year has involved enormous physical effort and tribulation for him and has left him a shadow of the figure he cut as president only a few years ago.


A man who revels in and hungers for power, is now being forced at least to consider how to give it up. The rest of political Moscow is thinking aloud along with him, and virtually every solution seems to involve a change to the constitution he fought so aggressively to establish.


Who knows if any of the proposals for change now being floated have any chance of success. But there is at least one that should never materialize, namely the one favored primarily by Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to appoint presidents, rather than elect them.


The problem with the current constitution is not that it has too much democracy in it, but too little. It is the single great achievement of Yeltsin's constitution that it allows the population to choose their president and parliament. The trouble is that it does not provide for a balance of powers between the executive, the legislature and the courts. Virtually all power rests in one pair of hands.


The worst thing Yeltsin could possibly do now would be to ensure that the next person who assumes such enormous power will not be chosen by the people, but by politicians. This, after all, was one of the key deficiencies of Soviet communism.


Yeltsin hinted Thursday that he may be -- for the first time -- ready to consider changes to the constitution. If so, this is to be welcomed, but there is cause to fear that it is being considered for all the wrong reasons. Rather than correct the current dysfunctions in Russia's political system, the goal of change will be to make sure the "right" man gets the job next.


Who is the "right" man? Certainly not the most popular politician in the country -- Alexander Lebed. The current elite would probably prefer Chernomyrdin, or Mayor Yury Luzhkov, or a kind of politburo that could include Zyuganov.


But the freedom to choose who will wield power in free elections is among the few absolute benefits Russians have acquired so far as a result of the collapse of Soviet power. What a tragedy it would be if a group of politicians succeeded in taking either away.