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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Constitutional Cakewalk

When Boris Yeltsin forced Valery Zorkin to resign as chairman of the Constitutional Court on Oct. 6, 1993, few could have imagined that 10 years later the judge would return to favor and resume his post without a change of regime or a revision of the official line on the power struggle between Yeltsin and parliament in the fall of 1993. When Yeltsin dissolved parliament and rejected the existing Constitution, Zorkin said the decree constituted a coup d'etat. From the moral and legal point of view, he was absolutely right. The problem was that Yeltsin's actions were applauded by Western leaders and a significant portion of Russia's "liberal intelligentsia."

Yeltsin's backers would realize only later that the regime they had helped to triumph was corrupt and had little respect for human rights; that elections were decided by putting the government machine to work for selected candidates; and that the president wielded unlimited power. The new Constitution, for which Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on parliament, made all of this possible. The Russian press blasted criticism of the Yeltsin regime as "anti-democratic propaganda" back in 1993. But such criticism had become commonplace before the decade was out. In fact, the flaws were no more glaring in the late 1990s than they were at the outset. And no one ever apologized for lying to the Russian people.

Unlike most of the key players in the 1993 power struggle, Zorkin emerged with his dignity intact. Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and the leaders of the dissolved Supreme Soviet committed too many mistakes. They accepted support wherever they could find it, not realizing that rallying the nationalists to their side would prove a moral and political catastrophe for the supporters of parliament. At the height of the crisis on Oct. 3 and 4, they sent a mostly unarmed mob to storm the television complex at Ostankino, exposing hundreds of civilians to gunfire and irreparably harming their cause.

The leaders of parliament in 1993 have tried to return to big-time politics on numerous occasions, but never with much success. Some sit on the State Duma's "back benches" to this day. Others are writing memoirs or selling chocolates. Rutskoi alone managed to buck this trend; he served one term as governor of the Kursk region. The results of his tenure there were disastrous.

Ten years later, only Zorkin has managed to get his old job back. The stance he took during the 1993 crisis was morally impeccable. He took no part in the political decisions made in the Supreme Soviet. He merely defended the Constitution, as he was bound to do. No more, no less. In the years that followed he never created a political party or tried to get his hands on the keys to the governor's mansion.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Zorkin's return as chairman of the Constitutional Court could therefore be viewed as the triumph of historical justice. Unfortunately, this triumph is little more than symbolic. Zorkin has once again been charged with defending the Constitution, but the current Constitution has little in common with the document for which people took to the streets back in 1993. The Constitution of the early 1990s was the product of perestroika and "Soviet democratization." It was imperfect, contradictory, and resembled a car that left the line with a few parts missing. It was also the most democratic state structure that Russia has ever known. It really did restrict the "freedom" of the new "elite" that had seized power and property in Russia. The October crisis was induced not by the old Constitution's contradictions, but because of what the Kremlin saw as its excessively democratic nature.

They say that the new Constitution was written "with Yeltsin in mind." This isn't true. It was written in such a way as to allow whoever emerged from the Kremlin's backroom deals as the president of Russia to govern without checks on his power or regard for the consequences of his actions. The Constitution turns representative government into a farce and democratic freedoms into a facade concealing the same old Russian autocracy. Defending such a Constitution amounts to ensuring that Russia's citizens never again exercise real control over their leaders.

Then again, no one is planning to replace the current Constitution. It suits the Kremlin to a tee. If anyone is unhappy with it, they are keeping their mouths shut, content with the rights and freedoms they still enjoy.

Zorkin's second stint as Russia's top defender of the Constitution will be a cakewalk compared to his first.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.