By John Helmer in Moscow
In the final hours of the Congress of Peoples Deputies last week, President Yeltsin signed a letter urging Congress to grant him
unusual new powers to override parliamentary votes.
Attached to the letter was the President’s legislative proposal, a draft law entitled “On the Government of the Russian Federation”.
The document was so hastily drafted, noone in the Kremlin caught a large typographical mistake or careless language in some clauses that make poor sense.
Although Mr Yeltsin urged Congress to adopt the draft on a first reading, and then refer it to the Supreme Soviet, he gave the deputies almost no time to do so. They ignored it; and so did the majority of the Russian media.
For almost everyone in Moscow, the document was overshadowed by the President’s closing speech to the Congress. In his remarks, Mr Yeltsin tried to strike a careful balance between supporters who have been urging stronger powers in a “presidential” form of government, and critics in Congress who urge tougher powers of their own to override the President in a “parliamentary”
Mr Yeltsin announced he would accept the advise-and-consent provisions, formulated in the parliament’s draft constitution,
which were amended and then endorsed by the Supreme Soviet, before Congress convened, and then by a general resolution of the Congress on April 18.
If parliament agreed “to stop attempts to subordinate the government”, the President proposed the quid pro quo — he would agree to submit his nominations of Chairman of the government (prime minister) and ministers for a vote of approval by the Supreme Soviet. If the Supreme Soviet voted no-confidence in ministers, Mr Yeltsin indicated in his speech he would agree to their removal.
According to Mr Yeltsin’s letter to Congress, his draft law “allows us to avoid unnecessary confrontation or conflicts between the Supreme Soviet and President.” That was also the tone of his speech.
But there is no mistaking the fact that the text sharpens confrontation by proposing to override several measures already adopted by the Supreme Soviet and endorsed by the Congress. Article 3 would allow the President to name an “acting head of government for the term of one year”, if “agreement is not obtained” from parliament. Article 13 provides that the Supreme Soviet has the right to summon and demand information from all ministers of the government, except for the Chairman (prime minister).
On the other hand, the ambiguous drafting of other articles reasserts existing constitutional controls, confirms the power of the Supreme Soviet to consent or withhold its consent from ministerial nominations, and subordinates presidential proposals for reorganization of the executive branch of government to parliamentary vote.
“Izvestia” reported the President’s speech and the draft law as if they were one and the same. According to the Russian newspaper, “in his speech Yeltsin offered some statements from this draft law. In detail, he claimed that the government is ready for the fact that the candidate for prime minister and a list of ministers will be confirmed by the President with the consent of parliament.”
For most deputies and ministerial offices, the draft law was never sighted. Since it had not been considered by Congress — which had also voted not to consider the draft constitution prepared by the President’s legal advisors — their opinion was that the paper, whatever it said, was moot.
But this was not the interpretation of several Western media.
For them the draft law, or at least Article 3, appeared to be far more important than the President’s speech. In headlines around the world, Mr Yeltsin’s law was reported as defying parliament, demanding it concede him the right to name a prime minister for up to a year, even if the Supreme Soviet rejected the nomination or voted no-confidence.
According to the Western headlines, the law added up to a clear victory of the President over Congress. The balance Mr Yeltsin
said he wanted to strike in the constitutional division of powers was upturned. In the West at least the President emerged the “clear winner”.
In the heat of the constitutional battle between the President and Congress, this was a small episode. But it reveals a telling gap of interpretation between text and report — between Russian statement and Western interpretation.
It is conceivable that Mr Yeltsin’s PR men decided to put a different spin on the outcome of the Congress for the New York and London newspapers, than Mr Yeltsin wanted for Russian consumption. At home, he aimed to appear the conciliatory father of the nation. Abroad, where his government has tried to tie its survival to Western financial assistance, Mr Yeltsin’s image as a winner needed burnishing, especially after a speech in which he offered significant concessions.
Western correspondents are used to spin-doctoring by presidential offices, and in the case of the law that never was, a little checking might have been useful.
However, in interviews with journalists whose newspapers headlined the draft law, the evidence is that the Western correspondents never saw the text. One said he relied on the ITAR-Tass report of what it said. Another said he thought the law was actually a decree, reportedly signed earlier in the week by Mr Yeltsin. A third said his Russian assistant had a copy of the law; he himself had not read it.
The Russian reporter said in his opinion the draft law would be submitted to the Supreme Soviet, even if it has been ignored by Congress, and that its claim to override parliament’s vote to reject government nominations was consistent with Mr Yeltsin’s emergency powers, as voted by the 5th Congress. This, the reporter claimed, was his interpretation “and I take personal responsibility for my work”. He said he had not sought the opinion of deputies on the constitutional or legislative committees of the Supreme Soviet to confirm this interpretation.
One Western correspondent who reported the Yeltsin victory explained he had not checked the draft law with deputies or members of the government because “these edicts are political statements, rather than laws.”
On what then did the Western interpretation of Mr Yeltsin’s victory rest, if not the texts of resolutions and laws voted or rejected?
Some Western correspondents believe that it is impossible to assess Russian parliamentary politics as in the West, because “you can find they say everything and nothing. In parliamentary terms, it is a total fuckup.”
By claiming there is no reliable Russian evidence to substantiate their reports, the Western press in Moscow has apparently decided to give up looking for it. Reporters now believe they alone know what is going on, because noone else can or does.
But this is Alice-in-Wonderland where Russian words only mean what Western reporters say they mean. For the time being that peculiar subjectivity is what makes headlines in the West.