Is Russia ready for a tsar?: Boris Yeltsin's volatile mix of democracy and autocracy has failed disastrously in the past, warns Andrew Higgins

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - President Boris Yeltsin has been accused of concocting a constitution that makes him a tsar. The coronation can now take place, blessed by a slim popular mandate for a turgid 137-article document that hardly anyone has read but which, according to Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, will serve as the 'solid core of a new state'. The State Duma, the lower house of this new order, should, in keeping with Mr Yeltsin's conception of Russia's imperial history, slip into impotent, if sometimes noisy, irrelevance.

Beware, Mr Yeltsin, Russia and the world: it won't.

Russia has indeed entered a new political era. Gone are the Supreme Soviet, the Congress of People's Deputies, the Brezhnev Constitution, the hammer and sickle and all the other trappings of Soviet socialism. The name chosen for the new lower chamber indicates what the Kremlin seeks to put in their place, as does the revival, by presidential decree in November, of the double- headed tsarist eagle to replace the old Soviet state emblem. Mr Yeltsin wants to return Russia to a political tradition truncated by the Bolshevik revolution.

It helps to remember what happened to the last tsar. Russia's first attempt to mix democracy and autocracy was made by Nicholas II. He set up a State Duma in 1906, but retained immense power for himself, far greater than that carved out for Mr Yeltsin in Articles 80-93 of the text approved on Sunday.

Tsar Nicholas did not like the word 'constitution'. It sounded too subversive. Russia, he said, could have only Fundamantal Laws. This charter conceded more authority than anything previous to it but still defined the tsar's role with a formula dating back to Peter the Great: 'To The Emperor of All the Russians belongs the Supreme Autocratic Power. God Himself commands that he be obeyed, not only from fear of God's wrath, but also for the sake of one's conscience.'

It left no room for argument. The tsar was an 'autocrat', parliament a mere consultative body. It had no power to appoint ministers and only limited control over spending. 'I created the Duma not to be directed by it but to be advised,' Nicholas II told his Minister of War. The court still judged it wise to rig elections. It fixed a franchise favouring those candidates that the tsar could work with - the rural gentry and merchants, and handicapping those he feared, the urban radicals. Nothing was left to chance.

The problem with elections is that they often stray from the script. Sergei Kryzhanovsky, one of the architects of the 1906 experiment, had this to say about the men who gathered in the Taurida Palace in the spring of 1906 for the first session of the State Duma: 'It was a gathering of savages. It seemed as if Russian land had sent to St Petersburg everything that was barbarian in it, everything filled with envy and malice . . . The attempt to found the political system on the will of the people was obviously doomed.'

It ought not to have mattered. The tsar had all real power. He also had the police and the army. Parliament was a rambunctious sideshow. But the Duma did matter. And it started to say so by redrawing the rules. It tried to abolish the upper house and redistribute property. The tsar was furious. And only 72 days after the State Duma opened, he shut it down. New elections were held. The second attempt lasted 105 days. Only by completely rewriting the election rules did the tsar get a Duma he could work with.

Will Mr Yeltsin have to do the same? He has denied wanting a 'pocket parliament'. But, as he surveys the list of names elected on Sunday he might well share Kryzhanovsky's feelings when confronted with the first State Duma: 'It was enough to take a look at the motley mob of deputies to experience horror at the sight of Russia's first representative body.'

Mr Yeltsin will see old enemies from the Soviet-era parliament, men like Sergei Baburin, the clever nationalist lawyer who, despite having had his party disqualified on dubious technical grounds, managed to win a seat in the Siberian city of Omsk. There are others, too. Anatoly Lukyanov, one of 12 leading Communist officials accused of plotting the August 1991 coup, won a seat in Smolensk, even though he spent much of the campaign ill and in bed in Moscow. Then there is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, neo-fascist and possible power-broker in the new parliament. Mr Zhirinovsky is entirely untainted by Communism. The Liberal Democratic Party is, he says, 'Russia's third force'. Many voters agreed.

When Mr Yeltsin went on television on 21 September to declare the Supreme Soviet defunct, he explained what he hoped to see in its place: 'People should come to the Russian parliament who will not indulge in political games at the people's expense but instead primarily create the laws that Russia needs so badly. More competent, educated and democratic people should fill the Russian parliament. I believe that such people exist in Russia, I believe we shall find them and we shall elect them.'

He was wrong, just as Nicholas II had been wrong. In principle, the new constitution allows Mr Yeltsin to appoint a prime minister almost irrespective of the distribution of seats. If legislators refuse to endorse his choice, he can - indeed, must according to Article 111.4 - send them home and call new elections. He can also appoint, with parliamentary approval, senior judges, the head of the Central Bank and military commanders. Impeachment of the President is all but impossible, requiring votes in both the State Duma and the upper house, the Federation Council, as well as rulings by both the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, appointed by the President and most likely disposed in his favour. The Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, among many others, condemns such sweeping presidential prerogative as little short of the 'Supreme Autocratic Power' granted Tsar Nicholas by Article 4 of the 1906 Fundamental Laws.

But Russia's new State Duma, whatever its constitutional weakness, will make itself felt. President Yeltsin cannot ignore it. Indeed the existence of a clear constituional framework will make it more difficult to brush aside. Mr Yeltsin can no longer dimiss the legislature as a bastion of unreconstructed Communism lacking any legitimacy. His chief spokesman, Mr Kostikov, announced late on Sunday night that Mr Yeltsin will 'respect the choice made by Russians' and suggested that an arrangement with extremists would have to to be reached. Mr Zhirinovsky, a supporter of a strong presidency, is declaring himself ready to form a government or take over ministries of defence, security and interior.

He and other members of the new Duma have no power to impose their will, but they can divide and distract that of the President. Even before all the votes were in, Mr Yeltsin's camp was in disarray. Reformists had squabbled endlessly throughout a campaign they expected to win easily. The first signs are they will do no better in defeat.

The hunt is on for a scapegoat. Anatoly Chubais, the privatisation minister, branded Mr Zhirinovsky a fascist and blamed fellow reformers for not rallying behind Russia's Choice. Gennady Burbulis, one of Mr Yeltsin's closest aides, accused the President of bungling the campaign by staying aloof. Yegor Gaidar architect of the radical free-market reforms that have lowered living standards for most Russians, warned that Russian democracy was fragile and faced a 'a situation similar to that in Weimer Germany'.

Whatever the parallel, a terrible, inexorable logic emerges: a raucous, divided parliamentary democracy giving way to an internally brutal and externally aggressive dictatorship. The experiment begun in 1906 with the opening of the State Duma would end 12 years later in the same building when Lenin sent troops to shut down a newly elected Constituent Assembly. A burly sailor, accompanied by armed colleagues, tugged at the sleeve of the speaker: 'We have orders. You cannot stay here any longer. The lights will be turned out in a minute. And the guards are tired.'

Russia is tired again. Mr Yeltsin has created a strong presidency on paper. Whoever comes after him may make it stronger still. Mr Zhirinovsky has already drawn up a draft constitution of his own in preparation for this day. How long might it be before a soldier or sailor is again sent to announce lights out in parliament?