Harsh realities intrude on the constitutional

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The Independent Online
Every night, accompanied by the dog, I nip out for a stroll, and have a quick look round to see if my neighbours have violated the constitution. They always have, usually on a colossal scale. The ground glistens with a fresh layer of shattered glass.

Few Russians know that every time they lob a vodka bottle into the bushes, toss a cigarette packet out of the car window or throw a pot of rancid stew out of the window of their flat (a particular favourite round my way), they ought, legally speaking, to be in big trouble. We are not talking here about a piffling city by-law. Article 58 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation clearly states that Russians are "obliged to preserve nature and the environment".

I raise the question because the constitution has been on everyone's mind here this past week. Or at least it ought to have been. Last weekend was cancelled; like the Monty Python parrot, it ceased to be. While Surrey was shopping and Sydney was surfing, Russians (at least officially) were struggling into offices and factories for the start of a seven-day working week, reviving memories of the Stalin era, when the citizenry had to slave away non-stop to fulfil his five-year plans.

The source of this disruption goes back to Thursday last week, a public holiday. Knowing the chances of a good turn-out after a day of eating and - more to the point - drinking, were slim, the authorities gave everyone Friday off as well. The pay-back was that Sunday was made into a working day. Meanwhile, Saturday was already decreed a weekday in exchange for 3 July, election day, when the country was given a holiday in the hope this would encourage people to vote.

Confused? Of course you are. So were the Russians. Some turned up for work at the weekend; some did not. And everyone seems to have had a very vague idea of what it was that they were celebrating in the first place. Unlike Soviet times, not much happened; there were no grand parades of rockets and tanks through Red Square in front of the party bigwigs.

In fact, Thursday was Constitution Day, marking its adoption in 1993. Taken literally, the document might be worth a small and cautious toast. But, in practice, it is a document far more honoured in the breach than the observance. For example, it grants the right to a jury trial, and to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Yet most defendants who appear in court find themselves peering through the bars of a cage at a judge and two lay assessors; juries are being experimented with, but only in nine of Russia's 89 republics or regions.

The constitution guarantees the right to free housing and a pension. Tell that to the thousands living on the streets, the millions who have not received their pensions for months. Free speech is supposed to be protected, although it withered on the vine at election time, when the national media made sure Mr Yeltsin's Communist-led rivals got about as much access to the airwaves as Sinn Fein during Britain's broadcasting ban.

One could go on. But perhaps that would be unreasonable. After all, this is a young country, where the rule of law, let alone a respect for it, has yet to be established. As the shattered glass, and my dog's cut paws, make so unpleasantly clear.

Phil Reeves