By Paul Goble
Twenty-five years ago this week, Boris Yeltsin convened a constitutional convention in Moscow which produced a draft that was then ratified by referendum after “a small civil war” took place in which Yeltsin crushed “the Khasbulatov parliament,” Sergey Shelin says.
Because of that congeries of events, the Rosbalt commentator continues, most “thinking” Russians continue to have three serious misconceptions about the Constitution and its consequences, misconceptions that get in the way of focusing on the real political problems of Russia today (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2018/06/05/1708432.html).
First of all, he says, many believe to this day that “the deputies of 1993 led by Khasbulatov and Rutskoy, even though they weren’t bearers of the idea of progress, were all the same fighters for democracy, while the supporters of Yeltsin, albeit possibly more advanced, brought authoritarianism” to Russia.
Second, according to Shelin, many think that “the existing Constitution, composed by Yeltsinites and liberals who came to his service gave the first and succeeding Russian presidents unlimited power. And third, they think that “our present-day regime systematically violates this Constitution” and the rights, freedoms and democratic principles listed therein.
“All three of these theses,” Shelin argues, “are incorrect.” When the Soviet Union fell, both Yeltsin and the deputies both “instinctively sought to restore” the kind of power vertical that had existed in Soviet times. “They sincerely did not understand that the rights of the bosses could be limited or even more divided.”
Those things might have to be tolerated for a time but not for long. What the fight in the early 1990s was about, a fight in which the Constitution was used by one side as a weapon, was not about such values but rather about who would structure the power vertical, the president or the parliament. That led to the events of October 1993.
Both sides in this fight sounded equally committed to democracy – “in that revolutionary atmosphere, to proclaim anything else would have been simply impossible” – “but both the one side and the other “understood that any constitutional provision, if you have power in your hands, is easily redefined and turned to your use.”
Moreover, both sides aspired to control the power vertical and at the same time neither wanted to face the voters lest the other mobilize the population against them, Shelin argues. Yeltsin got the upper hand both by convening a Constitutional Convention and by his referendum on elections, remembered for its “yes, yes, no, yes” required outcome.
The Constitution was and is remarkably democratic, but it is also subject to the kind of interpretations that those who believed a power vertical was necessary as was the case on both sides of the 1993 debate. Thus, the Constitution did not make Russia an autocracy: longstanding political values simply resurfaced to make it so.
And in formal terms, Shelin argues, even Putin observes the Constitution but uses it for his purposes rather than anyone else’s. Again, that is not the fault of the document, of Yeltsin or of Khasbulatov. That is a problem of a deeply ingrained Russian political tradition on how the state should be run.