The Russian-Belarussian Union

An interview with Alexander Veshnyakov, Chairman of the Central Election Commission.

In theory, we all may find ourselves citizens of the Russian-Belarussian Union in 2006. The new country will have a parliament of two houses and, probably, a capital. Will it have a new president as well, like the USSR in its last years of existence? Here is an interview with Alexander Veshnyakov of the Central Election Commission.

Question: Alexander Albertovich, according to Pavel Borodin, State Secretary of the Union state, a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Russian-Belarussian Union will take place this month. It will discuss organization of the referendum and election of the parliament of the Union. When do you expect the election?

Alexander Veshnyakov: This is not the first time Borodin promises the referendum and election of the parliament in the near future. So far, his forecasts have never come to pass. The commission in charge of the work on the Constitutional Act did meet this October. The decision was made to complete the work on the document and forward it to the Supreme State Council. Should the latter accept the document in November, or at least before the end of the year, the document will then be forwarded to national parliaments of Russia and Belarus for endorsement. The referendum will become possible only when the Constitutional Act has been endorsed. That’s the first option. Option Two: the Supreme State Council finds the draft document raw and sends it back to the commission. I for one am not confident at all that we should expect the events to take the former turn.

Question: What do you think may fail to satisfy the presidents in the Constitution of the future Union?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Borodin, for example, is convinced that the Union needs a president. As things stand, the draft document includes the provision on the collective ruling body – the Supreme State Council comprising the heads of states, chairmen of governments, and chairmen of national parliaments. As I see it, the matter of the president will be brought up yet because Borodin is not the only one convinced of its necessity.

Question: So, Vladimir Putin may become the president for the third time in a row, this time as the president of the Union?

Alexander Veshnyakov: As I see it, progress towards establishment of the Russian-Belarussian Union will continue but the future state will be without the post of the president.

Question: Assuming that all moot points have been dealt with and settled. When do you think this unification may take place?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Simultaneous referendums in Russia and Belarus may take place in the first half of 2006 (that’s the earliest date). In this case, election of the parliament of the Union may be arranged before the end of the year. It will only require adoption of laws on Union elections from the national parliaments. On the other hand, the referendums may take place at a later date yet. Sure, one may organize any moment, but it will be valid only with a turnout amounting to 50%.

Question: The referendums will be arranged in line with the national legislations. Is the difference between the Belarussian legislation and the Russian great?

Alexander Veshnyakov: It is. We in Russia elect the Duma by a proportional system which is not used at all in Belarus. Principles of formation of election commissions differ. In Belarus, they do not elect chairmen of the Central Election Commission by a secret ballot of members of the body. As things stand, we cannot unify electoral systems in our countries. It should be noted as well that the House of Representatives of the future parliament will include 28 Belarussian lawmakers and 75 Russian, but the upper house of the parliament will include 36 Russians and 36 Byelorussians. These latter are not going to be elected, they will be assigned by national parliaments. Every one of the 28 representatives of Belarus in the lower house of the parliament will represent less than 1 million voters, while every Russian lawmaker will represent 1.5 million. What equality can we expect?

By the way, I do not rule out the possibility that Russia may suggest abandonment of the purely majoritarian system in favor of proportional or mixed. After all, the Russian Duma will be elected by the proportional system in 2007. Along with everything else, we have to clarify and sort out spheres of competence of Union structures and national structures if we do not want a conflict of laws like the one we encountered in the last years of existence of the Soviet Union.

Question: And what does the draft Constitutional Act refer to as the sphere of competence of the Union parliament?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Matters like establishment of a common economic zone and legal foundations of the common market, a common credit, customs, commercial, tax, hard currency, and price policy, united transport and energy networks, a joint state defense order, common legislation pertaining to foreign investments, budget of the Union state, border policy, etc.

Question: Listening to you, I get the impression that you are not exactly hot about living in a Union again…

Alexander Veshnyakov: Actually, I’m all for a common state with Belarus. I’m convinced that the divorce we all survived was an unnatural process. At the same time, I retain certain reservations. What if we fail to establish an efficient state and discredit the whole idea of unification?

Question: Establishment of a new state is never easy. Let us get back to elections. Say, the forthcoming election of the Moscow municipal legislation. Do you expect any scandals over the vote count?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Political parties are actively selecting observers to monitor the forthcoming election. We only encourage it. We are even ready to offer political parties assistance in observer training. I myself could address representatives of parties and explain the procedure of alternative vote count on the basis of copies of the protocols local election commissions will make available. Installation of the electronic vote count system will make it particularly important. Electronic urns will be examined prior to the opening of polling stations in the presence of observers. The failure to carry out the procedure will be a reason for another vote count. Besides, we are prepared to arrange a random check of the results of the electronic vote count. Just to dispel all doubts.

Question: Lawyers of Vladimir Kvachkov, the man who is supposed to have arranged an attempt on Anatoly Chubais’ life, ask for a chance for him to carry out the campaign on equal terms with other candidates running for the Duma. Is it possible?

Alexander Veshnyakov: The situation is extraordinary indeed and therefore requires a non-traditional solution. On the other hand, I do not understand this candidate and his representatives who are actually involved in banal PR accusing the authorities of impartiality and God knows what yet instead of doing their jobs. I do not know if they ever received an official denial or anything (concerning the promotion campaign, that is) that may be officially challenged. Here is my advice to all candidates: stick to the law and everything will be all right.

Question: Election of the parliament of Chechnya is forthcoming too. What are your impressions of preparations? There is widespread opinion in the country that the authorities are in too much of a hurry…

Alexander Veshnyakov: My trip to Chechnya convinced me once again that the election there is a must regardless of the security problems. This is going to be the first election of a parliament of two houses, the first election on the basis of the proportional system. The first election with participation of political parties. I particularly like it that the eight parties running for the republican parliament have established working and cordial relations with the election commission. Among other things, it will help prevent or at least minimize falsifications. The system of observation will be like the one arranged for the election of the Moscow municipal legislature. I count on the election of the parliament as a factor of stabilization and fortification of ties between the authorities and the people.

Question: You were recently quoted as disagreeing with whoever called abolition of direct gubernatorial elections an encroachment on the Constitution. In the meantime, the Constitutional Court is about to contemplate a related issue, namely the procedure of relieving the supreme regional executive of his duties and disbandment of the regional legislature…

Alexander Veshnyakov: The Constitution does not expressly state that direct gubernatorial election is the only way. As for the procedure of relieving him of his duties, that’s an issue more complicated. I cannot give you an answer right now. As I see it, should the Constitutional Court find this provision colliding with the Main Law, it will offer another solution.

Question: The Constitutional Court is about to rule on the issue concerning the possibility of voting against everybody. What will the Central Election Commission do if the Constitutional Court rules that this “candidate” should remain in the bulletins?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Two options are possible. Number one: the Constitutional Court finds the existing state of affairs in line with the Constitution. Number two: the Court rules that that citizenry is entitled to vote against everybody. If you ask me, it will be a mistake that will eventually lead to abolition of this particular option in the regions and on the federal level too. This option, this voting against everybody, is not typical of elections throughout the world, but it is all right in Russia where democracy is still too young.