Letter From the Editors

This week marked two historical milestones that got a lot of buzz in the Russian press. One was the 20th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, and the other was the 30th anniversary of “Black October,” the violent 1993 confrontation between supporters of Boris Yeltsin vs. the Russian legislature.

Both of these events call to mind Newton’s Third Law: For every action or force in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Such a balance of forces in the Valdai Club was noted by Fyodor Lukyanov: “The diverse, if not motley, composition of current participants suggests an inevitable polyphony. This is the case for most issues. However, there is perhaps one indisputable leitmotif: rejection of anyone’s monopoly and reluctance to fit into a hierarchy.” Lukyanov adds that “the prospect of a world without hierarchy” is the main topic of the club’s annual report: “Whatever the world structure is in the coming years, the authors assume that it will no longer be controlled from a single center. That’s not good or bad in itself, it’s just different from how it was. And everyone has more opportunities, which, of course, means more risks.”

While such risks may be tolerable on the international level in this day and age, a Nezavisimaya gazeta editorial argues that they were too much for the Russian government of 1993: “For the executive branch, the October events were an argument that there cannot be two equal sources of decision-making in the country. . . . There cannot be two structures that can block each other’s initiatives.” Yeltsin’s drastic solution was to dissolve the parliament and create a new Constitution that expanded the powers of the president. Since then, the editorial continues, the Duma and regional governments have increasingly come under executive control. “As a result, right now it’s impossible to imagine any institution in Russia could ever dare change or question the president’s decision. . . . [T]he principle of separation of powers was never developed in Russia because of the October 1993 events.”

Incidentally, Yeltsin’s infamous decree that abolished the legislature was declared unconstitutional at the time by Valery Zorkin, the perennial head of the Russian Constitutional Court. Sergei Stepashin, who served as Yeltsin’s deputy defense minister, acknowledges in an interview with Rossiiskaya gazeta that Zorkin technically made the right decision, However, he adds with palpable emotion: “I’ll put it cynically and bluntly: When was anything done constitutionally here? In 1917? . . . In August 1991? We have always taken a philosophical view of the Constitution.”

Judging by a brief article in Vedomosti, Moldova’s Constitutional Court seems to hold more sway than Russia’s. Earlier this year, it banned the controversial Sor party from the republic’s parliament – and now, in a surprise move, it has lifted the ban, allowing members of the party to run for local elections in November.

Of course, in the American two-party system, it would be unlikely for one of them to be declared unconstitutional – but you never know, given the recent troubles in the House of Representatives. Yury Rogulyov, director of Moscow State University’s Franklin Roosevelt Foundation for US Studies, notes with concern that after Congressman Kevin McCarthy reached across the aisle to Democrats to reach agreement on the federal budget, some of his fellow Republicans helped get him voted out as speaker: “It is not clear how, from the point of view of democracy, a person in a two-party system who is trying to negotiate with the other party can lose trust. After all, negotiations on such an important and urgent issue as the adoption of budget resolutions are taking place with an almost equal distribution of representatives in the legislature.”

It’s hard to predict how Newton’s Third Law will play out between the equal and opposite forces on Capitol Hill. After all, political intrigues have often defied the rules of physics.