Publication: Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 160

The Communist faction in the Russian parliament is preparing to challenge Boris Yeltsin’s grant of powers to his security adviser, Aleksandr Lebed, to negotiate a settlement to the Chechnya conflict. In particular, the Communist chairman of the Duma’s Security Committee, Viktor Ilyukhin, has questioned the constitutionality of Yeltsin’s decision to give Lebed authority to sign bilateral agreements with Chechen leaders. (NTV, Radio Russia, Interfax, August 26) On August 10, Yeltsin appointed Lebed as his plenipotentiary envoy to Chechnya; four days later, Yeltsin signed a decree putting Lebed in sole charge of finding a solution to the Chechen crisis. The constitution describes the Security Council, which Lebed heads, as merely a consultative body and does not endow it with any powers of its own, stating that the powers of the Security Council will be defined by a special federal law. No such law has yet been enacted, however. Where federal law is silent, presidential decrees are valid. The president therefore seems to have been on relatively firm ground in devolving some of his powers to his security adviser.

Not so, object the Communists. If Yeltsin has devolved some of his powers to Lebed, says Communist parliamentarian Vladimir Semago, that implies that Yeltsin himself is unable to exercise them, and the constitution plainly states that, in the event of the president’s inability to exercise his powers, they pass not to the security adviser, but to the prime minister. (This in turn opens up another can of constitutional worms, since the constitution does not specify who is to decide whether the president is unable to exercise his powers.)

Declaring Lebed’s activity unconstitutional would be a simple way of undermining his efforts. The Communists and their nationalist allies fear that Lebed may reach a settlement in Chechnya of which they will not approve. Acting Duma Speaker Sergei Baburin has said that the situation surrounding Lebed’s negotiations with the Chechen leaders is so complex that it requires the personal involvement of Yeltsin himself; he has accused Lebed of "cloaking himself in the president’s powers" and "playing dangerous games with Chechnya’s sovereignty." (Interfax, August 27)

This hair-splitting legalism underscores the fact that, while the Russian constitution is very strong on the separation of powers, it is sorely lacking in checks and balances. Unlike countries where the head of state’s appointees are subject to an exhaustive process of congressional or parliamentary oversight, Russia’s Constitution calls for Duma approval only of the president’s choice of prime minister. Even in that instance, parliament gives its approval with a sword hanging over its head. One of the reasons why the Communist-dominated Duma approved Yeltsin’s choice of Viktor Chernomyrdin on August 10 was that it knew that, if it refused to do so, Yeltsin could suggest someone even less desirable from parliament’s point of view (the names of Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais were mentioned) and that, should parliament reject three of Yeltsin’s choices, the president had the constitutional right to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections.

The Communists and nationalists have their own party-political reasons for wanting to undermine Lebed’s attempts to reach a settlement in Chechnya. But the fact remains that Lebed’s position is shaky by the standards of normal constitutional government and is more like that of a courtier favored by an absolute monarch than a civil servant accountable to a modern, functioning democracy.

Chechnya Armistice Back on Track; Resistance Steps into Political Role.