By John Helmer in Moscow
In lengthy voting and debate on Saturday and this week, the Russian Congress of Peoples’ Deputies showed that a majority wants to develop in the direction of the American Congressional pattern, sharing power with President Yeltsin in a system of checks and balances.
The Congress votes also showed that the largest obstacle in the way is not the communists, whose strength has dropped significantly, but Mr Yeltsin himself and those of his advisors who demand more power for the executive branch of government.
The latest series of votes demonstrates that despite their resistance to this, a majority of deputies is in a mood to strike a working compromise with Mr Yeltsin. The uncompromising tactics of the so-called “left-right” bloc command between 250 and 350 votes — roughly a third of the Congress, but not enough to win a major policy division.
Also surprising for Western political observers, the voting strength of both the communists and the “Democratic Russia” movement backing Mr Yeltsin has declined sharply.
DECLINE OF COMMUNISTS
With only 59 deputies now identifying themselves with the “Communists of Russia” faction, there is little sign of the “hard-line” left in parliament which Mr Yeltsin, Mayor Popov and others have blamed as the source of the opposition to the government.
Without support from anti-communist parties, such as the Christian Democratic Union Movement, and nationalist groups like the Russian National Union, communist voting in the Congress would be a negligible force.
An indication of that were the votes on an economic policy amendment introduced by Deputy Roy Medvedev, chairman of the Workers’ Socialist Party, which was defeated 253 to 531. There was a similar result in the vote on an amendment to oblige the President to submit his proposed law on the powers of the government within 30 days; 222 in favour, 527 against.
The President’s men also appear to have over-estimated the cohesion and commitment of the Democratic Russia movement. As it has done before, this is splitting apart. As the government’s loyalists in Congress, the best they could muster in Saturday’s voting was 80 in favour of granting Mr Yeltsin the power to override resolutions of the Supreme Soviet.
Over 800 votes were cast against.
It has been evident in the demeanour and remarks of the government’s front bench at the Congress — Dr Yegor Gaidar, Dr Alexander Shokhin, Mr Shakhrai, and Ms. Ella Pamfilova (until last week the Minister of Social Protection) — that they know they lack the votes in parliament to pursue their economic and constitutional programme.
Dr Gaidar appeared confident that his own position was secure from dismissal, because the anti-government bloc lacked a majority — so long as he did not antagonize other factions.
RISE OF KHASBULATOV
In place of government loyalists, a group of about 200 deputies is emerging to cast swing votes. Although they have no official leader and differ among themselves on many issues, this group appears to be taking its cue from the Chairman of the parliament (equivalent to Speaker), Mr Ruslan Khasbulatov.
He is emerging as the most significant new political force in Russian politics at the moment, and has now overshadowed other
aspirants for national authority, as well as established national leaders such as President Yeltsin and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi.
Mr Rutskoi, who has changed policy positions frequently in recent days, also appears to have lost about a third of his parliamentary faction, “Free Russia”, as he moved from conditional support for the government and personal loyalty to Mr Yeltsin, to opposition, and finally to a voting alliance with the pro-government factions.
These shifts are taking place through a process of behind-the-scenes caucuses directed by faction coordinators. Out of their deliberations, deputies are evolving more clearly defined policy views, within smaller, well coordinated groups. Their activity most closely resembles the American Congress, where parties are relatively weak, and factions driven by regional politics and the power of legislative committees much stronger than in most other Western parliaments.
Mr Vyacheslav Shostakovskiy, one of the chairmen of the Republican Party of Russia, told the Business Times: “The general attitude is anti-party. This is the mentality throughout the country, and it was reinforced by the August events .”
CHECKS AND BALANCES
Russia’s Congress is possibly the largest in the world; it is certainly the largest to be operating without party structures
and whips to enforce conforming votes. And the evolution of the factional voting is, for the time being at least, the
form of democracy best adapted to this public distrust of party structures and ideologies.
It is also well-adapted to the American idea of dividing the power of the president and parliament to control appointment of ministers and the operation of the cabinet. The influence of US constitutional practice is acknowledged by presidential advisors like Dr Sergei Stankevich, who studied the American Congress for his PhD. However, the less lettered Russian deputies have showed Mr Yeltsin they support the checks and balances system more consistently than he.
Mr Yeltsin has said he is opposed to sharing power with Congress whose proposed constitutional draft would give parliament the right to reject ministerial nominations, and to force the dismissal of the prime minister and cabinet, overriding the President with a two-thirds majority. Such a provision, Mr Yeltsin has claimed in separate statements, is “psuedo-democratic”, and will “fling our country into chaos.”In a speech to Congress Friday, he appealed for a delay of six months to allow time to draft his own proposal for a law on this issue.
The deputies were divided on how much time to allow for considering these proposals. The strongest opponents of the government want 30 days, but this was rejected by the majority of deputies. The majority also voted to reject Mr Yeltsin’s request for six months, despite warnings from his supporters that they are making “a great historical mistake”.
These votes indicate also growing support now in Congress for delaying a vote on some sections of the proposed new constitution, at least until the early summer. In the meantime, parliament aims to hold Mr Yeltsin accountable for the economic policy concessions he has made, and test the appointments he has promised for a new cabinet.
On Friday Mr Yeltsin bowed to the parliamentary demand that he relinquish the prime minister’s portfolio, which he has held in addition to the presidency since last November. He told the deputies he had selected a prime ministerial candidate who, he said, will “make an impression on parliament”.
When a deputy interjected with the demand to identify the new prime minister by name, Mr Yeltsin hesitated, and then said he could not name the man because he had not yet spoken with him. It was the reflexive reaction of a man who has not yet learned the habits of political consultation that go with the democracy which the Congress believes it is creating. It also gave
deputies another reason not to trust what Mr Yeltsin says, but to vote instead to tell him how he should act.
In a poll of deputies undertaken late in the week by an independent polling group, only 17 percent said they favour Mr Yeltsin’s
version of a “presidential republic”. Thirty-eight percent say they support a “parliamentary republic”; and 45 percent want to balance presidential and parliamentary power in a democratic compromise.