Yeltsin imposes his will with constitution draft: Special assembly of 700 Russians opens today to consider a 133-article document which is the sole basis for discussion

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ON 25 May 1787, 55 men gathered in the State House in Philadelphia to draft a new constitution. Two months passed; summer and deadlock set in. The temperature soared, tempers soured. Benjamin Franklin suggested prayers to soothe the mood. There was no money to pay a chaplain.

Such was the strain imposed on what Thomas Jefferson would call America's 'demi- gods' - men of extraordinary brilliance and vision but men who still needed four months to draft a 14-page document.

It is worth remembering their tribulations when considering the task set for 700 Russians summoned to the Kremlin today for what President Boris Yeltsin would like to be a no less fateful gathering. The meeting will fix the shape of a new constitution and mark Russia's final rupture with the Soviet era.

This document must somehow balance the interests of more than 150 million people - instead of 4 million in America - and reconcile the claims of nearly 88 republics and regions - compared with 12 states (Rhode Island boycotted). And, if Mr Yeltsin gets his way, it will all be over in under two weeks.

The task is huge, dwarfing even that attempted in Philadelphia. In Moscow, though, Mr Yeltsin has decided there is no need for 'demi-gods'. He has already done the work for them - a 133-article draft that he insists must form the sole basis for the assembly's discussion.

It is a very different document from a draft constitution endorsed by parliament last year and which Mr Yeltsin supported. It sharply increases the power of the executive and diminishes that of the legislature. The Kremlin has received 1,500 amendments and some will be discussed, particularly those on human rights. But Mr Yeltsin has let it be known he will brook no 'chatter' and that he expects the special assembly to have finished its work by 16 June.

Russia has had four constitutions since the 1917 revolution. The current one, first drawn up for Leonid Brezhnev, has been amended 300 times to take into account the collapse of the country and ideology it was designed to serve. Mr Yeltsin and his supporters, however, say no amount of revision can correct what they see as a deep bias in favour of the Congress of People's Deputies, the full parliament with more than 1,000 deputies, and the smaller standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet.

Today's assembly begins the most thorough overhaul of Russia's constitutional system since 1918, when a democratically elected Constituent Assembly met in Petrograd - as St Petersburg was called. Things did not go well. The Bolsheviks had won a revolution but lost elections for the assembly. Humiliated personally and threatened politically, Lenin ordered the Constituent Assembly dissolved after one session. It was the Communists' last flirtation with democracy until Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mr Yeltsin's determination to impose his own will invites comparisons with Lenin rather than Benjamin Franklin. His special assembly has been carefully scripted and stage-managed, recalling the traditions of Communism rather than the more boisterous habits of democracy.

Oleg Rumyantsev, a former ally and author of an alternate draft, complains of 'arm-twisting tactics' and warns of a possible walk-out by delegates. Pravda, which derides Mr Yeltsin as a would-be tsar, reports that microphones have been removed from the floor to discourage debate. There has been grumbling too about the venue. When Mr Gorbachev negotiated a new union treaty in 1991 he did so in a country villa at Novo- Ogaryovo. Mr Yeltsin is staying firmly on his own turf, the Kremlin, where his supporters can keep control.

After a full plenary session today, the assembly will split into five discussion groups, each one headed by a loyal Yeltsin appointee. Each group represents a different layer of government or society - federal organs; regional authorities plus Moscow and St Petersburg; local governments; parties, trade unions and other groups; the business community. Mr Yeltsin's foes dismiss the division as a classic example of divide and conquer.

But whatever Mr Yeltsin's tactics, he can justify them with a degree of democratic legitimacy unprecedented in Russia. Lenin went into the Constituent Assembly in 1918 having lost an election. Mr Yeltsin not only won the presidential race in 1991 but renewed his mandate in April with a referendum victory.