Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 153

President Boris Yeltsin has rejected proposals put forward by the State Duma on transferring the president’s powers to the prime minister in the event that ill health prevents the president from exercising his duties. (RTR, August 8) The proposals have already been turned down by the upper house of parliament. (Rossiiskaya gazeta, July 23)

Article 92 of the Russian constitution states that the president’s powers are to be terminated before the end of his set term “in the event of… persistent inability to exercise his powers for health reasons.” It does not specify who decides, in the case of illness, whether the president is fit enough to govern. This is a sensitive issue in light of Yeltsin’s past health record. In 1995, he was twice hospitalized with heart trouble and spent a total of three months recuperating. In 1996, he disappeared from view between the first and second rounds of the presidential election and was out of action for six months for heart surgery followed by pneumonia.

The Duma’s proposals, adopted in the third reading on July 3, would authorize parliament to ask the Supreme Court to appoint a medical commission to examine a president either unable to work full-time for more than four months or whose doctors had ordered a reduced workload. If the president were to refuse to submit to examination, the commission would issue a diagnosis on the available medical evidence. Based on the commission’s diagnosis, the Supreme Court would have the power to certify the president as unable to fulfill his duties. Presidential power would then–as Article 92 lays down–pass to the prime minister for a period not exceeding three months while fresh presidential elections were organized. (Trud, July 4)

The presidential press service said Yeltsin objected to the Duma’s proposals on the grounds that they constitute a mechanism for temporarily removing the president from office, which is, the president argues, prohibited by the constitution. It follows that the bill is unconstitutional. (RTR, August 8) The Kremlin said Yeltsin did not believe that even a long illness or hospital treatment constituted sufficient grounds, under the terms of the constitution, for compelling the head of state to transfer his powers, even temporarily, to the prime minister.

Yeltsin’s objections notwithstanding, there is clearly a gap in the constitution that should be filled. Instead of passing stop-gap legislation, parliament will have to undertake the much lengthier process of amending the constitution before it is closed.