The School for Democracy

March 27, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

Russian politicians may be teaching themselves democracy yet. They are carrying on a power struggle by means new and alien. No guns, secret police, arrests in the night, mass demonstrations, troop movements or censorship have come into play, so far.

They are hitting each other over the head with constitutional clauses, trying to destroy each other by political means. It's a game they haven't played before. They don't really know the rules, which they make up while going along.

The Russians have a constitution written by the Brezhnev dictatorship in 1977, much amended by the Congress of People's Deputies, an elected body which selects a smaller Supreme Soviet as an everyday legislature. A Constitutional Court was created in 1991 as arbiter among competing claims in government, unconnected to the court system. It seems to be working, sort of.

Increasingly frustrated by the Supreme Soviet, President Boris Yeltsin said he would rule by decree. The chairman of the Constitutional Court said this was unconstitutional, before the case was heard. Mr. Yeltsin had not produced a decree, which was nonetheless found to have contravened the constitution in eight places.

Speaker of Congress Ruslan I. Khasbulatov said that Mr. Yeltsin's attempt at an unconstitutional power grab was grounds for impeachment, which the Constitutional Court had not said. (In this country, when the Supreme Court says the president overstepped, he steps back, but is still president.)

Mr. Yeltsin then published his decree, which was less unconstitutional than the court had expected.

Mr. Khasbulatov's plan was to allow the constitution, after impeachment, to elevate Vice President Alexander Rutskoi to the presidency. Mr. Rutskoi is a war hero who has been all over the political map but supposedly enjoys support of the armed forces. The defense, security and police ministries want desperately not to be appealed to, for fear of fragmenting under pressure.

Mr. Yeltsin plans to end this impasse with a referendum on April 25 that would reinforce public approval of his actions (a typical plebiscite in a dictatorship) and ratify a new constitution and election law, which have not yet been published, much less discussed.

Constitutional Court Chief Judge Valery Zorkin's compromise solution of elections and referendums is close to Mr. Yeltsin's first idea.

To Americans, it looks like 50 years of constitutional history telescoped into a few dizzy days. What keeps it peaceful is public indifference. The masses are not in the street. But if they are reading papers and watching TV, they are well informed. Russian media, these days, are free and informative.

How different the Russian drama is from France, where an alienated electorate trudges back to the polls tomorrow to complete last Sunday's work of cutting down a president elected five years ago to a seven-year term.

The French constitution came into force in wild days of 1958 that resembled Russia today. The right imposed a savior, Charles de Gaulle, who defeated his supporters. Then he had a constitution tailored to his dimensions like a suit of clothes.

Quite why the French are filled with disgust eludes observers. The corruption is not nearly so bad as Italy's, the recession so bad as Britain's or the reversal of fortune so dramatic as Germany's. The best explanation is that the French today feel their nation inferior to Germany, boring and un-French.

About 80 percent of the electorate that twice put the Socialist Francois Mitterrand into de Gaulle's constitutional clothes now repudiates him. Jacques Chirac is the politician who speaks for France today, but Mr. Mitterrand insists he will serve out his term because de Gaulle's constitution says he should. Mr. Yeltsin, the de Gaulle of Russia, should observe the plight of Mr. Mitterrand. The people don't always vote right. An enemy of Mr. Yeltsin's may someday occupy the presidency that he is having written to his needs.

The French have made one feeble experiment at ''cohabitation'' of a president and prime minister of opposing parties. We Americans think we own the franchise on balance of powers, though the concept comes from an 18th-century French political philosopher who thought he was describing the England of his day.

What the Russian political classes are doing however imperfectly is teaching each other to accept limitations on power. It does not come easily.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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