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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Parliament Defies Yeltsin on War Art

Parliament's upper house has mustered enough votes to override President Boris Yeltsin's veto of a bill that claims as federal property art treasures seized from Nazi Germany, Kremlin officials said Tuesday.

It is the first time both houses of Russia's parliament have overturned a Yeltsin veto of major legislation, and sets the stage for a fight in the Constitutional Court over presidential and legislative powers. Parliament's lower house, the State Duma, overruled Yeltsin's veto last month.

The Federation Council's action is sure to disappoint Germany, which signed a 1990 friendship treaty with the Soviet Union that includes a clause on mutual restitution of the so-called trophy art.

Voting by mail before a floor session Wednesday, the Federation Council overcame the 119-vote minimum needed to override Yeltsin's March veto, a Kremlin cultural adviser said in a telephone interview. A final tally is expected to be made public Wednesday.

The bill does not ban the return of art works to Germany, but it sets up a complex procedure that would make it all but impossible. A formal request from the Bonn government would be required for each of the estimated 250,000 art works and tons of archives now stored in Russian vaults and museums. Parliament would need to approve each request.

In addition to complicating Moscow's ties with Germany, its biggest ally in the West, the vote presages more problems for Yeltsin in the opposition-dominated parliament.

The Federation Council in the past has often supported Yeltsin and acted as something of a shield against the more rebellious Duma. Last year, for example, it overwhelmingly rejected a Duma bill aimed at blocking repatriation of the German art treasures.

But since then, 50 locally elected governors have joined the ranks of a body that previously had been appointed largely by Yeltsin and regional ruling councils.

Analysts said locally elected governors, who now hold sway in the council, have to be more receptive to the interests they represent. The fate of the art works is a potent issue among Russian nationalists in their constituencies, who regard the treasures as partial compensation for the 26 million Soviet citizens killed in World War II.

Yeltsin has seven days to appeal to the Constitutional Court, and a German source close to the negotiations said the Kremlin has promised to do so.

The Kremlin will argue that the Duma -- which is empowered to adopt resolutions on only seven carefully defined issues -- has far overstepped its authority.

The Kremlin will also argue that it has signed an international agreement with Germany that carries far more weight than any locally drafted legislation.

Yeltsin's chances in the court appear strong. Russia's Constitution, which he largely wrote, heavily favors the executive over the legislative branch.

Moreover, Yeltsin has had plenty of time to stack the Constitutional Court in his favor. After suspending it for 16 months, Yeltsin re-convened the body in February 1995 after expanding it to 19 members from 13 and naming allies as counterweights to opposition-minded judges.

"The judges must work to ignore the politics of this issue," said Andrei Piontkovsky, who heads Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies.

Even if Yeltsin wins in court, he is sure to face more resistance from a parliament that will be more confident about flexing its legislative muscles against the president.

Though the Federation Council vote is a setback for Yeltsin, it also works to boost his image in the West as the main guarantor of Western interests in Russian politics, said Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the INDEM think tank

"Yeltsin looks even better now, but Russia comes out the loser," he said. "Juxtaposed with parliament, Yeltsin keeps up his image of a guarantor of Russian security."

German media reports have valued the trophy art, which includes works by French impressionists and King Priam's Trojan gold, at $65 billion. But it has extra worth for many Russians who regard the pieces as a partial reparation for 26 million lives the Soviet Union lost in World War II.

Germans are anxious to win back the works, some of which were grabbed from private collections by specially assigned Soviet brigades. As a gesture of good will during a summit in Germany last month, Yeltsin even presented Chancellor Helmut Kohl with archival material from the Weimar Republic era that had been stored in Moscow.