Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 93

As a result of yesterday’s sacking of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the start today of the State Duma’s impeachment proceedings against President Boris Yeltsin, Russia could soon be facing its first major constitutional standoff since Yeltsin’s dissolution of the Soviet-era parliament in September 1993. This, at least, is the gist of one alarming scenario currently making the rounds.

According to Russia’s constitution, if the Duma passes an impeachment measure, which requires more than 300 votes, the president is then not allowed to dissolve the lower chamber for ninety days while the Federation Council and the Constitutional and Supreme Courts consider the measure. But the constitution also states that if the Duma votes down a president’s candidate for prime minister three times, the Duma must then be dissolved and new elections called, so that a new Duma is seated not later than four months after the time the former one was dissolved.

This means that if the Duma–which today began formally considering the opposition’s impeachment initiative and is expected to vote on May 15 on the five impeachment articles–passes any of them, it will likely argue that it is immune from dissolution for ninety days if it chooses to reject Yeltsin’s nominee for prime minister three times. In the likely event, however, that the Duma rejects the candidacy of Sergei Stepashin (now the acting prime minister) or any other candidate or candidates three times (Yeltsin could put up a different candidate each of the three times), the Kremlin will likely argue that its constitutional right to dissolve the Duma takes precedence over the Duma’s ninety-day immunity from dissolution, because Yeltsin’s sacking of Primakov pre-dated the vote for impeachment.

As several observers noted today, the Constitutional Court is likely to back the Kremlin. That, however, is no guarantee that the leftist opposition–the biggest proponent of impeachment–will accept the court’s finding. Indeed, one account noted that “it is customary in Russia that such legal conflicts are settled by force.” It also stated, as have a number of observers over the last week, that the constitutional standoff between the Duma and the Kremlin could leave the Federation Council–and thus Russia’s regions, given that the council consists of regional leaders–“the only winner” (Segodnya, May 13). Thus impeachment would add another powerful card to the Federation Council’s hand. It already holds the Skuratov card, having twice turned down Yeltsin’s request that Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, who allegedly has evidence of Kremlin corruption, be removed once and for all. The Kremlin is likely to be asked to rule on Skuratov a third time.

On the other hand, Vladimir Platonov, the Federation Council’s vice speaker, said today that “the impeachment procedure is illegal, and… in any case will not end with the removal of the president from office.” A law on impeachment is necessary to clarify the procedure, he said, but added that the Duma will gather enough votes on impeachment to prevent Yeltsin from dispersing it for ninety days. Platonov may have been hinting that while this impeachment has no basis, the Federation Council’s members may extract a price for voting it down should it pass in the Duma.