Russia's choice: terror or reform: With the power struggle in Moscow unresolved, Ruslan Khasbulatov appeals to parliament and president to co-operate - for democracy's sake

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The debates in our country about whether Russia should be a presidential republic or a parliamentary republic are conducted on an extremely low intellectual level - deliberately. Some people have even suggested to the president that a presidential republic would enable him to place the post of public prosecutor, all the courts, the lawyers and the press under his direct command; even that he should 'build democracy into the presidential system'. Goebbels argued that 'the greater the lie, the more people will believe it', and the lesson has been well learnt by our latter-day 'courtiers'.

In all these discussions, however, there has been no mention of the fact that the key to a presidential form of government is the separation of powers, according to which the job of the legislature is to make laws and the job of the executive is to make sure that they are properly implemented. The two branches should be independent but they should interact and work together without trying to eliminate each other.

However, the defining symbol of a democratic state is its representative branch of power, its parliament. This is what guarantees the law-making and monitoring functions in all areas. The stability of the state depends on its effectiveness. It is only we Russians, with our typically autocratic way of thinking, who have started to look critically at our democratically and freely elected parliament - and we began this only the day after we won our 'semi-democracy' following the August 1991 coup. By being so critical, we have prepared the people for the coming of a new messiah - a dictator.

Of the 1,040 members of the Russian parliament, 1,004 were selected in tough contests against other candidates, many of which went to a second round. The members of the Russian parliament elected in 1990 should not be confused with the members of the Soviet parliament of 1989, whose election was not so democratic. Such confusion is deliberate. Was not Boris Yeltsin himself elected with us back in 1990?

Democratic government must be at the centre of our discussion. This is what gives executive power its stability, since in our country the government receives its mandate not directly from the people, as the president does, but from the legislature, which is elected by a national vote. Parliament can deprive the government of its support at any time and this is how the executive is controlled.

In America the Founding Fathers laid the foundation for the three branches of power - legislative, executive and judicial - to exert reciprocal control, a principle which has apparently gone unnoticed by some of our so-called reformers who want to strengthen the power of the president. They have obviously learnt nothing from the experience of Mikhail Gorbachev: as soon as the Soviet Union's parliament was weakened by the 'Gorbachev-Lukyanov' alliance, between the president and the parliamentary speaker, state power lost its authority.

Gorbachev had lost most of his power long before the coup of August 1991, even though formally he controlled everything: the army, the KGB, the government, parliament, the banks and so on. Even in a semi-democratic society the authority of the state derives from the constitution and the law, which are embodied in parliament. If you want terror and dictatorship, then abolish parliament and representative government.

Many people today, politicians, economists and other specialists, tend to think that we can find a way out of our crisis by adopting emergency political and economic measures, getting the Congress of People's Deputies, the Supreme Soviet and the executive all to work together. But, and this is crucial, such emergency measures must be exercised strictly within the law. The Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet (the standing parliament) ought to establish a legal basis for the government and the president to work effectively.

First, we must stop attacking each other, wasting time in senseless squabbles and distorting each other's shortcomings in public. If this is to happen, we need to stop the two sides provoking each other: both those invested with executive power and supporters of those who are exploiting popular discontent in a time of crisis.

Second, the executive branch - that is, the president and the government - must make compromises. At present, however, a cruel struggle is being waged between legitimate executive power and the illegitimate but none the less real power that currently resides as a kind of 'politburo' within the executive power structure.

Third, we need to involve in the process of reform not only ambitious people seeking to make careers, but truly high-class specialists and managers, concerned citizens, academics, people from the cultural sphere and collective farm workers. The bloc called, Civic Union, could probably have a large part to play in this.

The question of co-ordinating the work of parliament and the president has been around for a long time now. It is a complex problem, especially when seen in its historical context. The presidency is an institution without precedent in the thousand-year history of the Russian state. We do not have any tradition or experience of it. We need to study, absorb and analyse everything.

We need the sort of partnership between legislature and president where the accent is not on who dominates whom but where every branch of power is subject to the law and constitution and fulfils its intended function. Partnership and collaboration should be central to current relations between the two main branches of power. Only this will guarantee that our state develops its democratic potential to the full and increase confidence in parliament which, with the president, guarantees democratic rights, freedom and the integrity of the state.

It is legitimate to ask whether the relationship between president and parliament could be entirely free of conflict. Yes, it could. But then the Russian parliament would cease to be a real legislative and controlling branch of power; it would cease to be the supreme authority whose basic function is to draft laws in the interests of the people. Ultimately, such a parliament would cease to exist, as happened with the parliament of the Soviet Union.

Another answer seems more correct: there may be contradictions, conflicts and misunderstandings on individual questions, but these differences should under no circumstances be seen as a crisis, a tragedy or an attempt to foment a quarrel; nor should they reduce important political questions to a matter of personalities. Clashes between different branches of power have been going on for centuries in democratic countries and they can be resolved by reasonable compromise.

The Russian parliament should function as a strong and dynamic partner to the president, the presidential power structures and the government. The balance between the legislative, executive and judicial branches has always been what enables the political and economic systems of developed states to function successfully.

In the present crisis, the state system of Russia requires well-defined procedures for making decisions and, more importantly, for carrying them out. We desperately need to streamline the operation of the legislative and executive branches and we need a professional approach to forming the structures of power and government. All the main figures in the state hierarchy must find a common language and work together to solve specific problems and find compromises that answer the interests of all our people.

The poor standards of professionalism in our bodies of executive power prevent them from working towards a compromise with parliament. But if we do not learn how to do this, other power structures and other politicians will soon take our place.

Copyright R I Khasbulatov. Translation Copyright Routledge.

The author is Speaker of the Russian parliament. This is an abridged extract from his autobiography, 'The Struggle for Russia: Power & Change in the Democratic Revolution', edited by Richard Sakwa, to be published in English by Routledge on 8 April at pounds 19.99.

(Photograph omitted)