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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Ponder State of Emergency




Canceled elections, curfews, censorship, suspended civil liberties - this is what a "state of emergency," that bugbear that keeps cropping up in discussions of Russian politics, could in theory mean.


And in practice? What is a state of emergency? What are the legal and constitutional implications? Like so many other corridors of Russia's legal labyrinth, the hows and whats are often confusing dead-ends.


But the speculation charges forward undaunted: A state of emergency is on the horizon, Kremlin opponents warn darkly, and it will let President Boris Yeltsin suspend the Constitution and stay in office indefinitely.


Upon being nominated for prime minister, both Sergei Stepashin and Vladimir Putin - each a former security chief - almost immediately felt compelled to assure the country that they had no plans to call for a state of emergency.


Such unsolicited denials served to further fuel talk. So have the media. The front-page of Thursday's Kommersant newspaper showed a photograph of soldiers in an armored personnel carrier driving down a Moscow street, and was accompanied by an article in which Kommersant warned darkly that "so far" there is only talk of a state of emergency for the Caucasus.


That same day, the Segodnya newspaper warned in a front-page headline that "The Kremlin is dreaming about a state of emergency."


Citing anonymous sources, the newspaper reported that Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin met secretly with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, the man behind the Islamic uprising in Dagestan.


The front-page story obliquely hinted that Basayev's invasion of Dagestan was entirely staged, perhaps at Voloshin's request, to provide a pretext for a state of emergency and the canceling of elections. Segodnya is owned by Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST, which has sided with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov in his ongoing battle with Yeltsin's inner circle.


Kirill Zubkov, a Kremlin press service spokesman, reached by telephone Friday, refused - after a sigh and a lengthy pause - to comment on Segodnya's story.


But even officials as sober-minded as Konstantin Titov, governor of the Samara region, remain unconvinced. Titov said Friday that the Kremlin may try to cancel December's parliamentary elections after declaring a state of emergency in Dagestan, where Russian forces have been battling Islamic militants all week.


Acting Prime Minister Putin began the week pledging there would be no state of emergency, either locally in Dagestan or nationwide. By week's end, Putin was qualifying that, in comments that seemed to translate as: There will be no state of emergency unless there is a state of emergency.


"It will be possible to speak of introducing a state of emergency when it is needed," Putin said Friday in remarks carried by Interfax. "There is no such need today."


"Restrictions of rights and freedoms can be introduced, with an indication of their extent and duration, in a state of emergency," reads article 56 of the Russian Constitution. The article goes on to stipulate that a state of emergency can only be declared "in order to ensure the safety of citizens and the protection of the constitutional system."


Even then, a state of emergency can only be declared "in accordance with a federal constitutional law."


Such a law - which must pass parliament by a two-thirds majority in the State Duma and a three-fourths majority in the Federation Council - has yet to pass either house. It has been in committee since 1997.


Alexander Kotenkov, Yeltsin's representative to the Duma, admitted the legal complexity of the situation. On Friday, he told reporters that the president wanted the Duma to pass the languishing bill on emergency rule - just in case it is needed.


So until that happens, Yeltsin can't legally declare a state of emergency at all, right?


Wrong.


According to Vladimir Isakov, head of the Duma's legal department, until a new law is passed, the parts of an old Soviet-era law that do not contradict the current constitution are in force.


According to the Constitution, the president can declare a state of emergency by decree - stating the time frame, place and reasons. He must then inform parliament and the decree must be confirmed by a simple majority in the Federation Council, the upper chamber, which is comprised of regional leaders.


Should the upper chamber approve emergency rule, Isakov says, the Soviet-era law - with measures ranging from simply tightening security in trouble spots, to more draconian moves including censorship, curfews and summary arrests and evacuations - would kick in.


The Constitution does explicitly spell out some measures that the state cannot take under an emergency regime. The Duma, for example, cannot be dissolved during a state of emergency.


The Constitution also forbids an emergency regime from suspending constitutional protections citizens have against torture, and for freedom of religion, freedom of economic activity and due process.


On the other hand, the Constitution does not expressly forbid the cancelling of elections during emergency rule - meaning that whether such a move is legally allowed would be debatable.


Other rights that the Constitution does not expressly forbid the suspension of under a state of emergency include the rights to free speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly; the rights to travel and to strike; and protections against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.


Marat Baglai, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, in his book "Constitutional Law of the Russian Federation," writes that further limitations on and guidelines for emergency rule need to be spelled out in federal legislation.