Referendum of December 1993

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A referendum of December 12, 1993, ratified a new constitution for the Russian Federation, which had long been sought by President Boris Yeltsin. The collapse of the USSR in late 1991 made the ratification of a new constitution most urgent. As the USSR no longer existed as a legal entity, its laws technically no longer had legal force. To fill this void, President Yeltsin and the parliament concurred that the constitution and laws of the former RSFSR would continue to be observed until a new constitution could be adopted. This was a necessary but unsatisfactory situation, since the 1978 Constitution of the Russian Federation was the product of the Brezhnev era and reflected the values of the now repudiated communist system.

Throughout the period from 1991 to 1993, Yeltsin quarreled with the parliament over the outlines of a new constitution. In particular, progress toward approving a new constitution was delayed by heated disputes over three major issues: the allocation of powers between the executive branch and the legislative branch, the allocation of powers between central and subnational institutions, and the process for ratifying a new constitution. The deadlock was finally broken on September 21, 1993, when Yeltsin issued a decree dissolving the parliament. Anti-Yeltsin members of parliament refused to disband but were evicted by force on October 4, as Yeltsin ordered troops to fire on the Russian White House.

The violent events of October 1993 cleared the way for new elections to be held on December 12, in which voters were asked to approve a draft constitution favorable to the president and also to elect a new lower house of parliament (Duma), called for in the draft.

President Yeltsin issued a degree on October 15 calling for a plebiscite on his draft constitution. The document was made public on November 9, leaving only one month for debate and discussion. Yeltsin's choice of terminology "plebiscite" rather than "referendum" was not accidental. According to the 1990 Law on Referenda, issues affecting the constitution required the support of a majority of all registered voters, rather than a majority of all those voting.

Voter turnout for the December 12 referendum was low compared to previous elections. Only 54.8 percent of eligible voters turned out, and of those, only 58.4 percent supported the new constitution. Had ratification of the new constitution depended on the referendum, it would have lost, since only about 31 percent of all eligible voters supported the new constitution. However, Yeltsin declared a victory for the new constitution in the plebiscite, and the document became generally regarded as the legitimate Constitution of the Russian Federation.

See also: constitution of 1993; october 1993 events; yeltsin, boris nikolayevich


Marsh, Christopher. (2002). Russia at the Polls: Voters, Elections and Democratization. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

White, Stephen; Rose, Richard; and McAllister, Ian. (1997). How Russia Votes. Chatham, NJ: Chathan House.

Gordon B. Smith