Russia's Constitutional Czar

November 14, 1993

A country's constitution is its platform of ideals. Some countries live up to those lofty goals, others cynically and brazenly violate the spirit and letter of their basic law. The most glaring example of the latter is the 1936 Soviet constitution. It presented a framework for a caring human-rights society at a time when Stalin's executioners were in the midst of one of the bloodiest purges in history.

President Boris N. Yeltsin is now proposing a constitution for his country that would erase the much-amended Soviet-era document. If approved by voters on Dec. 12, the constitution would give Russia's chief executive added powers while diluting the clout of the two chambers of parliament.

It would also try to put an end to recent separatist agitation within Russia. The autonomy of certain regions -- which was encouraged by communists as window-dressing but has been exploited by secessionist politicians in the past years -- would be severely curtailed. Russia, the draft constitution says, is "a unified state created by history" and "united by a common fate." End of discussion.

The draft constitution guarantees a full spectrum of human rights, including "freedom of the press" and "freedom of movement." Those are goals that are easy to proclaim. But centuries of Russian history have proved them elusive in practice. They are now lumped together with some other "rights" that proclaim lip-service to communist declarations that may be extremely costly and difficult to fulfill in a capitalist Russia. Such as rights to "social protection," housing, free education, free medical care and "protection against unemployment."

Since Russian voters will be asked only whether they agree with this draft, the constitution is likely to pass in next month's elections. The question then is not what the details of the constitution say but how government respects its spirit. Having pTC seen how several versions of communist constitutions were not even worth the paper they were written on, it is easy to understand why so many Russians are skeptical. Mr. Yeltsin and future presidents must make them believers.

Democracy has been a short-lived idea in Russia. Czars were unquestioned autocrats until 1906, when a weak legislature, the Duma, was created. After Nicholas II abdicated in early 1917, parliament became a symbol of political anarchy. Lenin and Stalin brutally ended that.

In bolstering the president's powers, the Yeltsin constitution tries to prevent a repeat of the past two years' recurrent parliamentary deadlock. This is a noble goal. But it may enable a future president to attain powers akin to a constitutional czar.

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