The Constitutional Challenge

Date: April 1, 2002
Source: Moscow Times
By Dzhabrail Gakayev


Although numerous elections have been held in Chechnya over the past decade and a half, only at a considerable stretch could they be called democratic, free and fair. Each time that elections have taken place, instead of consolidating society, they have only served to deepen divisions.

It will only be possible to bring an end to the protracted conflict in Chechnya and consolidate society once a government is elected in democratic elections -- thus giving it real legitimacy and authority among the people. If the conditions for holding such elections cannot be put in place, it would be better not to conduct elections at all.

The best way of establishing constitutional order in Chechnya is to start from a clean slate. The constitutional process could be initiated by convoking a congress of representatives of villages and towns of the republic, of all ethnic groups in Chechnya, and of Chechen communities in Russia and abroad. An organizing committee should be created to determine congress procedures, quotas for representatives, etc. The congress would then elect from its number a Constitutional Assembly to prepare the legislation necessary for holding proper elections.

The foundation for erecting a constitutional edifice in Chechnya should be local elections -- i.e. elections to village, district and city councils (which, in turn, would elect a chairman). Only after local elections have taken place does it make sense to conduct elections at the republic level.

Chechen traditions suggest that a parliamentary system of government would be more appropriate for the republic. The people of Chechnya have not tended historically to tolerate the imposition of authoritarian rule, and partly for this reason the presidential system of government has failed to take root in the republic. State institutions in Chechnya have always depended to a considerable extent on the support of traditional institutions of local government -- such as councils of elders, etc. This is how things have been for centuries.

In the final analysis, however, discussions about the pros and cons of a parliamentary or presidential system of government are largely academic. Of primary importance is the creation of a functioning system, in which the constitution provides for the separation of powers and there is a clear delimitation of the competencies of each branch of government.

The parliament should consist of an upper chamber with around 20 representatives formed on the basis of proportional representation of the districts, main ethnic groups and confessions; and a lower chamber of 38-40 representatives elected by popular vote. The parliament should then appoint a prime minister from its ranks and confirm the government that he puts forward.

It would be preferable not to delay and hold local and republic-wide elections next year.

An elected parliament could then complete work on the draft constitution prepared by the Constitutional Assembly and, following public debate and consultation, adopt it. A referendum on the status of Chechnya should not take place right away; given that society is deeply divided and traumatized, it makes considerable sense to postpone this issue to a later date.

The problem of establishing constitutional order by no means ends with selecting the system of government. Of paramount importance is the issue of who will rule the republic; whoever it is should be united by a shared commitment to public service. Chechnya's future prosperity very much depends on honest people with a sense of public duty coming to power.

There is also another option for restoring constitutional order in Chechnya. Under this scenario, the Constitutional Assembly is formed from the former deputies of parliaments that existed during the rule of Doku Zavgayev, Dzhokhar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov, representatives of parties and confessions, authoritative public figures, leading academics, etc. -- in total between 100 and 150 people. The composition of the Constitutional Assembly could be confirmed by Russian presidential decree.

Such a body would fulfill the role of an interim representative and legislative institution, charged with preparing a draft constitution as well as the legislative basis for holding elections. It should also set dates for holding elections.

It is extremely important that all sections of Chechen society be represented in this Constitutional Assembly, with the exception of those persons and organizations that have committed crimes against the people of Chechnya. Such broad representation should assist consolidation and reconciliation in society, and most importantly should serve to legitimize the process of establishing constitutional order. Under the appropriate circumstances, the consultative council being formed under the auspices of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and the State Duma could fulfill this role.


Dzhabrail Gakayev, professor at the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute under the Russian Academy of Sciences, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.


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