If anyone should know how to rig a constitution, it’s me and George Bush, Jr. You might say it runs in the family.
Take my uncle, for example.As the British Empire began to break apart in the aftermath of World War II, he was one of many former military intelligence officers assigned by the imperial administrators in London to exercise their Oxbridge educations for the benefit of the constitution drafters in the colonies. On one of his stints, my uncle helped install a British constitution in Ghana. Much later, he helped provide advice during the course of the only constitutional putsch to have occurred in Australian history. The outcome was the removal of the elected Labor prime minister, and his replacement by a conservative. For his legal skills and loyalties, my uncle was handed the unpopular reward of becoming Australia’s governor-general. It was one of those jobs that someone has to do in Australia, if not in Ghana, which got rid of its Colonial Office constitution as quickly as it could manage.
I was working for U.S. President Jimmy Carter when the call for help came in from Prime Minister Jayewardene of Sri Lanka. He had just been elected, and he was thinking of changing his constitution. It was another of those Colonial Office jobs that had my uncle’s fingerprints all over it. The prime minister was thinking of turning himself into a president, and needed someone who knew how to handle the English and American rue-book. We worked hard over the next few months, and for a going-away present, Jayewardene’s Cabinet colleagues presented me with a leather-bound version of their mint-new Sri Lankan Constitution. I was touched, and in my acceptance speech, I invited the 20 or so ministers and advisors at dinner to sign the document, if they didn’t mind. Constitutions can be short-lived, and the good a man does to rig one for today, can be quickly forgotten tomorrow, I said to knowing nods. Within a decade, many of the signatories were unnaturally dead, blown up or shot down in the civil war that has afflicted that unhappy land. I still have my leather-bound keepsake, though.
A decade of good works later, and I happened to be in Athens the year US President Ronald Reagan thought it was time to rig a Greek election, and dispose of socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. He was much too popular at the time to lose a constitutional election, and as Reagan’s advisors warned, they had already toyed far too often with the Greek constitution for another attempt to be worth the try. And so the idea was hatched to encourage a little war between Turkey and Greece over oil exploration rights on the seabed of the Aegean Sea. The plan was to humiliate Papandreou in front of the voters. The Greeks started preparing for war about six months before Washington told the Turkish prime minister to give the order to set sail into Greek waters.
It was a fateful order. In a flash, Papandreou turned off the electricity at the American intelligence bases, cutting their ability to listen into Greek military communications. He moved the Air Force to front-line bases, fully armed and ready to take off on three minutes’ warning. And he called Todor Zhivkov, president of Bulgaria in those days. Zhivkov ordered his tanks to start rolling towards the Turkish border. It was the first – and last – display of coordinated military action by a NATO state and a member of the Warsaw Pact. It was also the shortest war that Greece has ever won over Turkey. The Turks and the Reaganites suddenly got cold feet. Their geological survey vessel was ordered back to harbor, and the Turkish prime minister checked intci a Houston clinic for a cardiological checkup. Greece and its Const tution were safe, until Reagan’s next trick – a scandal hatched with a Greek fraudster, who owned a local football team. But that’s another story.
The experiment of the Soviet Union constitutionally re-jigging itself under Mikhail Gorbachev was hard for the outside powers to resist manipulating, and as we all know, they didn’t. Russia under Boris Yeltsin turned out to be a familiar story. Only memories are short, especially when prompted by those who receive stipends to forget.
When the Moscow Times reported this week that President Vladimir Putin is proposing to change the Russian Constitution “which was drafted by Yeltsin advisers amid political fights in a Communist-controlled Duma”, the audacity of the misrepresentation, or the forgetfulness, takes one’s breath away. The 1993 constitution that Yeltsin drafted followed his order to shell and machine-gun to death the popularly elected Supreme Soviet. About 140 lives were lost in that attack. The opposition to Yeltsin in parliament included a Communist Party majority because the voters put them there, under the constitution that aimed at maintaining a balance of power, or so it was called at the time. But support for reform of the constitution, then being drafted by non-Communist deputies like Oleg Rumyantsev, Sergei Baburin, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, was in no way controlled by the communists. Quite the reverse – the constitutional reformers were far ahead of the Communist Party.
The Moscow Times compounds its forgetfulness of what really happened with more distortion. The Yeltsin Constitution of 1993, claims the newspaper, “placed a lot of power in the president’s hands but introduced direct elections for governors, and reserved half of the seats in the Duma to directly elected deputies.” What is omitted is that Yeltsin eliminated direct election of senators to the Federation Council, substituting the governors and the regional parliament chairmen in their place. This was done because direct election of the upper house had created an anti-Yeltsin majority during the constitutional battle with the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin used the formula of direct gubernatorial election to make sure he never faced a hostile senate again. That was an irreversible shift in the balance of power. The Constitutional Court, which had also been showing independent opposition to Yeltsin, was locked out, and its membership then swamped with presidential trusties. These measures were promoted, then roundly applauded in Washington at the time. When Yeltsin rigged the vote for ratification, there was no complaint from foreign democrats, or the local ones besides.
That sordid story does not justify the attack on Putin’s proposals from the same forgetful gang that backed Yeltsin’s destruction of parliament, court, and constitution 11 years ago. Eleven years for a rigged constitution has proved long enough to forget the democratic options that Yeltsin destroyed. He himself can claim today “we will not allow ourselves to deviate from the letter, and most importantly, the spirit of the Constitution that our country adopted by popular referendum in 1993.” But the old crocodile is weeping phoney tears. The spirit of the 1993 constitution was rigged; the letter was a fraud; the outcome was a rotten borough parliament in which seats (as well as parties) have been bought and sold. Eleven years isn’t so long that Putin should be under obligation to preserve that.
Gubernatorial seats are so expensive, they have required oligarch-sized fortunes to acquire. Thus, for exampe, Sibneft owns Chukotka; Norilsk, Krasnoyarsk; Alrosa, Sakha; Russian Aluminium, Samara and Khakassia; and Tyumen Oil Company, Tyumen. It has been cheaper to buy seats in the Federation Council, and the State Duma. It’s difficult to say whether single-mandate seats in the lower chamber are are costly, more tradable than places on the party lists. Both together represent a concentration of corporate wealth that has been the real character of Russia’s parliamentary evolution since 1993.
The big question today is whether Putin will prove strong enough to continue his campaign against the oligarchs, and clean parliament of their corruption at the same time. Remember that, at the start of last year’s parliamentary election campaign, not a single political party or candidate told the voters whether he was for or against Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s massive tax evasion and fraud. That did not become a campaign issue until Putin’s initiative demonstrated that it was both official and popular at the same time. Reviving ideologically distinct political parties through a simple proportional representation system is a worthy aim. But if the United States hasn’t managed to achieve this yet, Putin may be biting off more than he can chew. And if he succeeds, the political outcome may be too democratic to be digestible. For proportional representation will sharpen the ideology of Russia’s political opposition. It will almost inevitably produce a revival of leftwing, even communist opposition. This is hardly what the so-called democratic critics of Putin want to see. The outside powers have spent billions of dollars rigging the Russian Constitution so that would be impossible.
Of course, that was mostly the doing of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. Bush Jr. arrived too late to rig the Russian Constitution. He almost didn’t arrive at all. If he hadn’t rigged the constitutions that regulate the state of Florida and the Supreme Court in Washington, everyone knows that Bush Jr. wouldn’t be president today.