Chicken Kiev

Who rules Russia? Today’s newspapers suggest the legislature can and may impeach the president. Three days ago newspapers suggested the president can and may dissolve the legislature. Who’s really in charge?

As it happens, the Russian constitution doesn’t say. Russia is threatened with a serious constitutional crisis. Here’s why.

Two thirds of the legislature–called the Duma–may impeach the president. And when the President is impeached, says the constitution, he may not dissolve the Duma. The constitution also says that if the Duma rejects the president’s nominee for prime minister three times, then the president must dissolve it. The Duma has rejected President Yeltsin’s candidate (Chernomyrdin) two times already.

Crisis would be triggered if 1) the Duma impeaches the president; 2) Yeltsin nominates Chernomyrdin for the third time; and 3) the Duma then rejects him. That is precisely what Yeltsin and the Duma are threatening to do. If this in fact happens, the constitution simultaneously says the president must dissolve the Duma and at the same time cannot dissolve it.

The most recent reports from Russia are that Yeltsin will back down and nominate someone other than Chernomyrdin (probably Primakov) for prime minister. In other words, the Duma and Yeltsin played a game of chicken and Yeltsin blinked.

Another thing the newspapers missed: Impeachment is only one small step towards sacking the president. At least three other bodies must also vote to sack him before he must leave office, and two of these bodies are appointed by the president himself. The constitution, written in 1993 with executive-legislative relations at an all time low, was specifically designed to prevent the Duma from sacking the President.

Explainer thanks Professor Michael A. McFaul of Stanford University.