Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 158

The power-sharing agreement hammered out yesterday by Russia’s acting Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and parliamentary leaders was under threat this morning as President Boris Yeltsin and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov both threatened not to back it. The agreement, painstakingly negotiated over the last few days by a trilateral commission including representatives of the government and both houses of parliament, was sent to Yeltsin last night. It was supposed to pave the way for Chernomyrdin’s confirmation today as prime minister by the State Duma. That, in turn, would allow Chernomyrdin to form a government and begin to implement plans to stave off the complete collapse of the Russian economy. (RTR, August 30; BBC, August 31)

All that has now been cast into question. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told Russian Television last night that his party has grave doubts about the agreement and will not vote for it in the Duma today. President Yeltsin threw his spanner in the works by saying last night that he opposes hasty changes to the Russian constitution. (RTR, August 30) Chernomyrdin met this morning with both sides but reportedly failed to reach agreement. (BBC, August 31) The aim of the power-sharing agreement was to win parliamentary support for the government’s economic policies by increasing parliament’s powers and reducing the president’s. The State Duma would gain the right to approve the appointment of government ministers–though the president would retain his exclusive right to appoint the “power ministers” (defense, foreign affairs, security and internal affairs) and would not, therefore, be reduced to a figurehead. The president would agree not to dismiss the government without parliament’s approval or to dissolve parliament for an eighteen-month period. Parliament, in turn, would withdraw its threat to impeach the president. According to some accounts, Yeltsin and his family would be promised immunity from prosecution once he leaves office.

These concessions, which would be confirmed by a series of constitutional amendments, are by no means extraordinary when compared to other presidential systems, such as the United States or France. They would represent a healthy correction to the overweening powers granted to the Russian president by the country’s 1993 “superpresidential” constitution, written for Yeltsin by his aides. They would bring stability to relations between the president and the opposition-dominated Duma. They would also, by weakening the powers of the presidency, provide a safeguard against the danger that a rogue president would in future get his hands on almost unrestricted power.

This morning’s news that president and opposition have had second thoughts is therefore a dangerously destabilizing development that will do nothing to restore faith in the Russian economy or in its political stability. It may be that Zyuganov is trying to wring last-minute concessions out of Chernomyrdin–such as a pledge to renegotiate the conditions of Russia’s loan agreement with the IMF–and that Yeltsin himself will bow to pressure. This is by no means certain, however. If Yeltsin and the Communists stick to their guns, President Bill Clinton will arrive tomorrow in a country that has no officially confirmed prime minister, no government and no way in sight out of its economic crisis.