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  • Russia's New Constitution:An Introduction
  • Ludmilla Alexeyeva

We are pleased to present on the pages that follow an authoritative essay on the new draft Russian Constitution by Oleg Rumyantsev, secretary of the Constitutional Commission of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Republic (RSFSR). Mr. Rumyantsev, the principal author of this historic document, has been dubbed the "James Madison of Russia" by the Washington Post. The essay that appears here is a translated, edited, and slightly abridged version of his original Russian text. In order to provide our readers with some political background to the struggle over the new Constitution, we have asked Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a distinguished Russian emigré scholar, to write the introduction that appears below. Both Mr. Rumyantsev's essay and Ms. Alexeyeva's introduction have been translated from the Russian by Paul Goldberg. Excerpts from the draft Constitution itself can be found in our "Documents on Democracy" section beginning on page 124.

—The Editors

The main focus of political life in the USSR today is the battle between the "center"—the all-Union apparatus of power headed by Mikhail Gorbachev—and the republics yearning to escape its control. As a result of Gorbachev's evident determination to preserve the Soviet empire, and his consequent break with the Western-oriented reformers who were formerly his strongest allies, virtually all democratic forces in the USSR are now arrayed on the side of the republics.

It is a paradox of the current situation that the demand for sovereignty is coming not only from the other national republics but from the Russian Republic itself, the very heart of the USSR with roughly half its population and three-quarters of its territory. Russia's first Congress of People's Deputies, chosen in partially free elections in March 1990, selected Boris Yeltsin as the chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, and then on June 12 adopted a Declaration of Sovereignty. Shortly thereafter, the Congress appointed a Constitutional Commission charged with drafting a new constitution, and Yeltsin called upon Oleg Rumyantsev (who had helped to draft the Declaration of Sovereignty) to serve as its secretary.

In November, the Constitutional Commission voted by a narrow margin to approve the publication of the democratic text drafted by Mr. Rumyantsev, defeating a demand by Communist legislators that their alternative draft also be endorsed. The Rumyantsev draft was then [End Page 35] published in the independent journals Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Argumenty i Fakty, while the government-controlled press, led by Sovetskaya Rossiya and Pravda, mounted a campaign against it that described it as "antisocialist" and "antidemocratic."

Despite having gained this victory in the Constitutional Commission, however, the democratic constitution has not been able to make further progress. It was not placed on the agenda of the second RSFSR Congress of People's Deputies nor made part of the March 17 referendum (in which Russian voters will address not only Gorbachev's question on preserving the Union, but also a question added by the Russian Supreme Soviet on whether to have a direct election for the Russian presidency). The problem is that it is by no means clear that the democratic constitution can command a majority in the RSFSR Congress of People's Deputies or Supreme Soviet.

Its overwhelming support for the Declaration of Sovereignty notwithstanding, the Russian legislature contains a strong contingent of hard-line Communists and many wavering voters along with the democratic forces led by Boris Yeltsin. Recently, the RSFSR Supreme Soviet effectively crippled an attempt at the privatization of agriculture by passing an amendment making it impossible for landowners to sell their property for a period of ten years. It thus seems unlikely that either the Congress of People's Deputies or the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR is ready to approve a constitution that would clear the way for free enterprise.

If the matter were brought to a popular vote, however, the Constitutional Commission's draft would be likely to win approval. In a recent survey conducted by the RSFSR Institute of Sociology, 72 percent of Russian youth said that they would like to see Russia as a sovereign state integrated into the Western world. But securing a referendum on the...