Russian Democracy Survives

March 27, 1993

The idea of a constitution survived this week in Russia. So did President Boris Yeltsin. Absolutism, a great tradition in Russia, lost.

Mr. Yeltsin did not get to scrap the Congress of People's Deputies and its creature, the Supreme Soviet. The Congress did not get to depose Mr. Yeltsin. (The word used was "impeach," but it did not mean accuse and try; it meant kick out.)

On the surface, Mr. Yeltsin appears a winner. His legend as a heroic politician facing down an armed coup or hostile Congress is burnished. He is apparently going to get the speedy elections and referendums he seeks. But he has no assurance of winning them. The opposition attacks him for the pain of economic reform and for his pro-Western foreign policy. Until their lot improves, many Russian people may blame these policies and their proponent for the country's plight.

The real winner is Russia's embryonic democracy, which people and politicians are still trying to understand. Running throughout the present relationship of opponents are such concepts as shared powers, restraint, the idea of rules when the rules themselves are obscure, legitimacy and the primacy of a constitution however easily it may be amended or substituted.

The Constitutional Court, only two years old as an institution, and its chief judge Valery D. Zorkin, come out with authority enhanced. They provided the possible solution. If at times Mr. Zorkin was not judicial in temperament, he functioned as mediator and architect of compromise. By agreeing with Mr. Yeltsin on the usefulness of free elections, Mr. Zorkin charted the nation's way out of this impasse.

Vice President Alexander Rutskoi is another winner, having emerged as the alternative to Mr. Yeltsin. With the most nonpolitical past of all the politicians, this former pilot staked out his positions and disagreements with his former leader, especially in his bitter emotional speech yesterday. The Russian people are getting some idea of who and what, in the event of Mr. Yeltsin's fall, they would get instead.

The speaker of the Congress of People's Deputies, Ruslan Khasbulatov, was a loser this week. He is still the adroit master of the legislative body, but he first showed his hand and then overplayed it. He may be able to thwart Mr. Yeltsin's policies, but he staked his reputation on ousting the president and failed to do it.

The causes of constitutionalism, democracy and reform are momentarily on top. Mr. Yeltsin is confident enough to go ahead with his summit meeting with President Clinton in Vancouver a week from today. Mr. Clinton must understand that Mr. Yeltsin has to bring tangible aid back from Canada to justify his pro-Western policies, or be in deeper political trouble at home than he was this week.

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