Russian vote approves new constitution

December 13, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Buffeted by political strife and disappointed in their party leaders, Russians yesterday gave President Boris N. Yeltsin the constitution he wanted but they also appear to have given him a strong opposition in a new parliament.

If early results and exit poll findings hold up as returns come in from across the world's largest country, the various pro-Yeltsin reformist parties should constitute the strongest group in Russia's first post-communist legislature, if they can work together.

But Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a captivating orator and extreme nationalist who once threatened to take back Alaska from the United States, could emerge as the most powerful figure in an invigorated hard-line camp.

In region after region, Mr. Zhirinovsky Liberal Democratic Party held first or a strong second place out of 13 parties on the ballot for Russia's first multiparty elections since the 1917 Revolution.

Among the fractured reformists, only the Russia's Choice bloc, the main pro-Yeltsin party, could match Mr. Zhirinovsky showing, and alone it fell far short of a controlling majority.

Results reported early this morning from the Far East gave the Liberal Democrats 20 percent; Russia's Choice, 19 percent; the Russian Communist Party, 12 percent; and a pro-reform group led by Grigory Yavlinsky, 11 percent.

Anatoly Chubais, a deputy prime minister, said last night that the inability of the reformers to overcome their differences and unite in a single party had opened the door to their opponents.

"We will have to pay dearly for the democrats' failure to reach accord," he said.

The Liberal Democrats, he said, "represent nothing but Russian fascism."

Until recently, Mr. Zhirinovsky had been considered something of a joke. He ran for the presidency against Mr. Yeltsin in 1991 on a platform of cheap vodka, and won 6 percent of the vote.

Yet he handles himself well on television, and the election campaign just concluded was carried out almost exclusively on TV. Mr. Zhirinovsky moderated himself a little -- he stopped talking about the day when Russian soldiers would be washing their boots in the Indian Ocean -- and he clearly tapped a powerful current of unhappiness and resentment.

More strife on way

The results seem to promise continued political strife. Mr. Zhirinovsky is completely opposed to the generally pro-Western, pro-market course of Mr. Yeltsin's government. So, too, is the Russian Communist Party, which also made a fairly strong showing yesterday.

Yet Mr. Yeltsin prevailed on the issue that was most important to him: getting approval for a new constitution. It gives the new parliament legal underpinning and replaces the old Soviet constitution, under which Mr. Yeltsin had found it impossible to govern alongside a recalcitrant parliament.

The new charter concentrates a considerable amount of power in the presidency, giving him, for instance, the ability to dismiss the Duma, or lower house of the new legislature.

It also guarantees private land ownership, a multiparty system, and various individual rights that existed on paper in the old Soviet constitution but were consistently violated in years past.

Significantly, the new constitution strikes a blow at regions that are seeking greater autonomy. It makes no provision for special status for such regions. Tatarstan, a Muslim republic on the Volga River, boycotted the referendum in protest -- but was unable to torpedo it.

Yesterday's turnout nationally exceeded the 50 percent required to make the constitutional referendum legitimate -- although barely. National fervor over the vote was kept well in check by weariness with political fighting and disappointment in two years of reforms that been accompanied by high inflation, unemployment and crime.

Mr. Yeltsin's aides announced only an hour after the polls had closed in western Russia that the "yes" votes were in the majority -- about 60 percent nationwide, according to Vladimir Shumeiko, a deputy prime minister.

"Dear Russians," said Vyacheslav Kostikov, Mr. Yeltsin's chief spokesman, "the constitution is approved. We're living under a new government, under a new democratic authority."

Mr. Yeltsin always made it clear that a new constitution was more vital to him than the results of parliamentary elections. In part, of course, this is because the new constitution makes the parliament less important than it was formerly.

But, more importantly, the vote on the constitution came to be seen as a vote -- yet another one -- on Mr. Yeltsin's presidency. His prestige and authority were riding on the outcome, and a rejection could have been devastating.

Mistake by Yeltsin?

Last week he warned that Russians would be risking civil war if they turned down his charter.

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