Leading Article: Too much power for Boris Yeltsin

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN has got himself into a nasty mess in his attempts to push through a new constitution. His friends are hinting that the constitutional assembly which opened in disorder a few days ago may not produce a single draft, but several versions for further discussion.

That sounds like a recipe for continuing confusion, but it may be preferable to the passage of Mr Yeltsin's current proposals. These would give him almost untrammelled power, far in excess of that enjoyed by the presidents of France and the United States. He himself would be tempted to misuse it, and in the hands of less scrupulous successors it would be still more dangerous. The proposals would allow the president to dissolve parliament at any time, choose ministers at will, initiate legislation, call referendums, run foreign policy and issue decrees. The vice-presidency would be abolished, as would the Congress of People's Deputies. Checks and balances would be minimal.

The disappearance of the congress would be no great loss, but its replacement would usher in new problems. Mr Yeltsin wants two directly elected chambers, one representing the regions and republics, with limited powers. At the same time, however, in order to get the support of the regions, he has promised to devolve so much power from the centre that he could, in theory, find himself with 89 different currencies and no tax revenues. With one hand he is taking too much power; with the other he is giving it away to the regions.

The whole process is hasty and unconstitutional. The proposals were thrown together by three people. The assembly that Mr Yeltsin has brought together has no legal standing, and the congress, which is supposed to approve a new constitution, will not approve this one in its present form. Opponents are not limited to old-time Communists trying to save their jobs. They include many people with excellent democratic credentials who see a new form of tsarism in the offing, and fear the chance is being missed to give Russia the modern system of government it needs.

To argue that Mr Yeltsin needs autocratic powers to force through reforms is not convincing. It is true that the congress has been obstructive, but in the referendum of 25 April Mr Yeltsin received a strong popular mandate for reform and new elections. He could have tried to modify the proposals of the constitutional commission that has been at work since 1990. More modest constitutional change followed by elections would have removed many of his more retrograde enemies and opened up a healthier road to reform.

What Russia needs is a newly elected, truly representative parliamentary body with real powers. When asked to vote, the Russian people have shown themselves to be very sensible. They almost certainly would choose a majority of members who would broadly support the reform process. As it is, Mr Yeltsin's proposals do not deserve to be called constitutional. They are a bid for emergency powers. These have a habit of becoming permanent, as they did after the revolution of 1917.