Staunton, July 25 – The challenges the Russian Federation faces today with regard to constitutional development are exactly the same ones the RSFSR constitutional commission did in July 1990, an indication that the country has lost three decades and must begin again if it is to be a democracy, Boris Vishnevsky says.
In the summer of 1990, the commissioners declared that their task was to come up with a basic law that would overcome the authoritarianism of the Soviet past and put Russia on course toward a law-based state in which the governors as well as the governed would live according to transparent rules, the opposition deputy in St. Petersburg’s legislative assembly says.
But because of what happened in 1993, when Boris Yeltsin used force against the Supreme Soviet , putting paid to any hopes the transition the commissioners had hoped for would happen, Russia today is no closer to achieving the goals than they were (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/07/25/86404-k-nesmenyaemomu-samoderzhaviyu).
From the beginning, the commissioners were divided between moving in the direction of a presidential system, something many believed was necessary to ensure there was a transition from community, and a semi-presidential one in which the prime minister would either be a presidential appointee or form a responsible ministry to the parliament.
But even before this debate could be resolved, Yeltsin took the lead in pushing for a strong presidency, securing that new office for the RSFSR at the same time as the USSR held a referendum on the preservation of the USSR in March 1991. Less than three months later, Yeltsin assumed that post.
He and his team pushed for a strong presidency even though the commission continued to debate and took the results of the April 1993 referendum as being a popular vote in support of their position. Yeltsin then replaced the commission with plans for a constitutional convention he could control and ensure the strong presidency view would win out.
After Yeltsin crushed the Supreme Soviet in October 1993, his convention put out a draft that was subject to approval by referendum in December of that year. Because the Kremlin controlled most of the electronic media, there was no real debate possible, Vishnevsky says; and the constitution was adopted, albeit with only 58 percent voting in favor.
Efforts to investigate the vote were blocked, and thus was put in place an autocracy, even though it was supposed to have a president elected for no more than two terms. Given the constitution’s allocation of all power to the presidency and no real powers to the legislature or judiciary, it was no surprise the direction Russia would head in.
Vishnevsky’s argument is important because it highlights why the revival of autocracy began far earlier and indeed with only the shortest of intervals and why Russia must not simply reject Putin’s latest amendments and understandings but the autocratic principles enshrined already in the 1993 document.