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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NEWS ANALYSIS:No One Sure if Yeltsin Can Decree Crisis Plan




For now, President Boris Yeltsin's dark threat to resort to "other methods" if the State Duma fails to approve his government's much-trumpeted austerity package seems to have done the trick.


After initially balking at the deal, more and more influential legislators have caved in over the past few days to Yeltsin's bullying and promised to work overtime if need be to get the legislation approved before the lower house breaks for its summer recess July 16.


But the big question remains: If the Duma, true to form, has not passed the package of legislation by the summer, can Yeltsin push the program through using his power of decree, as his threat last week seemed to imply?


The answer, for now, is that even constitutional experts in parliament and the Consitutional Court itself are not exactly sure. Five years after the constitution became Russia's basic law, how much power the president actually has is still open to interpretation.


Article 90 of the 1993 constitution allows presidents to issue "orders and instructions." These must be followed by everyone in Russia, so long as they do not contradict either the constitution or existing federal laws.


Consitutional law experts in the Duma insist that in this case, Yeltsin's hands are tied. But law experts in the Constitutional Court, many of whose judges have been hand-picked by Yeltsin himself say the president has plenty of leeway.


"The constitution does not allow Yeltsin to correct previously issued laws he no longer likes by issuing decrees," said Vladimir Isakov, who heads the Duma's legal department.


"And almost all the laws submitted in this package to the Duma have been just that -- corrections, including corrections to this year's budget," he said. Therefore in Isakov's view, if the package is rejected by lawmakers and Yeltsin has to ram it through by decree, he would be acting illegally.


But what looks like a "correction" to the Duma may look like a "filling in of a gap" in existing legislation to the Constitutional Court, something which, some experts say, is perfectly legal.


"On April 30, 1996, the court ruled that the president can issue a decree in case there is gap in existing legislation that needs to be filled," said Leonid Lazarev, the head of the law department at the Constitutional Court.


"These decrees can only be of a temporary nature," Lazarev said. "They can function until parliament approves new legislation that also covers that gap," or until a new president rescinds the decree.


In the end, it's up to the Constitutional Court to decide what is a legal "gap" and what is an illegal "correction." And the court says at this point, it just does not know enough about the austerity program to make up its mind one way or the other.


Some in the Duma, though, have interpreted Yeltsin's words as meaning something more serious than just ruling by decree. "From what I understood of Yeltsin's words, he is talking about disbanding the Duma, introducing an emergency situation, and then ruling by decree," Isakov said. "That would be illegal."