Russian constitution bears Yeltsin's stamp

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President insists his draft blueprint is not an 'iron hand'

PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin yesterday presented Russia with its post-Soviet political charter, a 66-page draft constitution promising clean air, private property and ideological pluralism, but anchored in the president's will.

The document, due to be put to a vote on 12 December, the same day as national parliamentary elections, marks the final stage of Mr Yeltsin's drive to transform Russia's political system by fiat.

Mr Yeltsin went on television last night to urge voters to back his blueprint. 'Russia needs solid legal order badly,' he said. 'But not the horrendous repressive order of Stalin's camps.' He defended the draft as a 'barrier against confrontation'. It would not mean an 'iron hand but a democratic legal state'.

The supremacy of presidential authority and the manner in which the text was railroaded through has led to predictions that unlike the United States constitution, written in 1787 and still in force, Mr Yeltsin's far more unwieldy document may not last much longer than his presidency.

In part, it resembles the constitution drawn up for Charles de Gaulle in 1958, a text designed to impose order on a fractured political system through a powerful executive far stronger than that in Germany, where the president is largely a figurehead, or even the US, where the president has extensive authority but is balanced by Congress.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, an irreverent but pro-Yeltsin mass-circulation newspaper, greeted Russia's new dawn with a cartoon of Mr Yeltsin wearing a crown fastened to his head with a locked metal strap. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a more earnest liberal daily, voiced concern about stirrings of tsarism: 'Until 1996 it is not the text of the constitution that matters but the personalities at the top around the Kremlin throne,' wrote the editor Vitaly Tretyakov.

Mr Yeltsin, elected in 1991, promised in September to hold early elections next June but has since announced he would like to serve out his five-year term. His constitution incorporates elements from drafts crafted earlier by the now dissolved legislature and by the Communists, but is based mainly on a text approved by his own hand-picked constitutional assembly in July.

It replaces a much-amended and frequently contradictory Soviet charter written for Leonid Brezhnev in 1977 and which Mr Yeltsin tore up on 21 September when he abolished the Congress of People's Deputies and ordered elections for an new leglislative body, the 450-seat State Duma.

The new constitution is more difficult to change. But it may be no less tied to the political fortunes of its authors. 'It is obviously temporary, it cannot serve the country in the long term,' said Gary Kasparov, chess champion and one of several celebrities campaigning on behalf of the pro- Yeltsin Russia's Choice bloc.

The old constitution defined the Congress as the 'supreme organ of state power' - a clause that meant nothing while real power rested with the Communist Party, but which later led to endless bickering with the President and finally bloodshed last month. The new one returns the centre of political gravity to the Kremlin, where the executive branch - which has its own security service and politburo- like security council - has resumed some of the functions performed in the past by the party leadership.

Yesterday's draft goes further in fortifying the presidency at the expense of the legislature than the version scripted by Mr Yeltsin in July. Impeachment is made all but impossible and can be initiated only in the event of 'high treason' or 'grave crimes'. It eliminates the post of vice- president, previously held by Alexander Rutskoi, now awaiting trial in Lefortovo prison. Mindful of recent convulsions and possibly Mr Yeltsin's own reportedly poor health, it expands on the July draft to spell out how the prime minister must stand in for the president if he is incapacitated.

The Central Bank, frequently caught in the crossfire between parliament and the president, has been given a vague independence from the legislature. The State Duma can name or sack the chairman but only on the president's recommendation. He will be more vulnerable to pressure than the head of the Bundesbank or Federal Reserve.