Since Vladimir Putin suggested amending the Russian constitution and set up a commission to discuss proposals, some 900 amendments have supposedly been submitted to the commission. We now have a better idea of which of these have passed muster and will be considered by the State Duma as additions to the amendments already submitted. The Speaker of the State Duma Viacheslav Volodin announced today that several new clauses would be added for consideration in the second reading of the constitutional reform bill, which is due in the next few days. The text of the changes is said to be 24 pages long. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet available on the Duma website, so we’re going to have to go off what Volodin told the press, but I am assuming that this is accurate.
First, the preamble to the Constitution will now say:
The Russian Federation, united by a thousand year history, preserving the memory of our ancestors, who gave us our ideals and belief in God, and preserving also the succession in the development of the Russian state, is a historically composed state unity.
This wording serves two purposes. First, it adds a references to God. Second, it entrenches the modern Russian Federation’s claim to be the successor of both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. It thereby throws a bone to the Church, while also resolving a debate about Russia’s identity, asserting that all of its past is part and parcel of an integral Russian whole. This is primarily of symbolic meaning, but it does possibly have some practical significance, making it difficult, for instance, to imagine any sort of Ukrainian-style decommunization involving the wholesale elimination of Soviet-era names and monuments.
Second, marriage will be defined as something limited to men and women. This will render same-sex marriage unconstitutional. So-called ‘family values’ will be further protected by another change which will declare that ‘children are the most important property of the Russian Federation’. This reflects the government’s desire to get Russians to have more kids. I doubt that putting these words in the constitution will do much to encourage them. It might, though, at some point be used in some legal argument to bolster the case for children’s rights.
Third, if the amendments are passed, the constitutional will now state that,
The state language of the Russian Federation on all its territory is the Russian language, as the language of the state-forming people [как язык государствообразующего народа].
This is a concession to Russian ethno-nationalism, though it doesn’t go as far as some would have liked, as it doesn’t say that Russia is the state of the Russian [russkii] people (as opposed to that of the Rossiiskii people – the distinction between russkii and rossisskii being a crucial one). It merely calls Russians the ‘state-forming people’, while at the same time maintaining elsewhere the description of Russia as the state of the ‘multinational Rossiiskii people.’ As such I doubt that this change is of much importance, although entrenching Russian as the state language could well have an effect in terms of favouring Russian-language education over minority-language education in parts of Russia where there are large populations whose first language isn’t Russia.
Fourth, the constitution is to be changed to guard against separatism and concessions of territory, with the following wording:
The Russian Federation guarantees the defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Actions (excluding delimitation, demarcation, and re-demarcation of the state boundary with neighbouring states), directed to the alienation of part of the Russian Federation’s territory, as well as calls for such actions, are not permitted.
Ironically, having supported secession elsewhere, the Russians are now proposing to ban it at home! And not just ban it, but make it illegal even to propose it. This means, for instance, that it will become unconstitutional to call for Crimea to be returned to Ukraine. One can see that this might lead to repressive measures against what might be considered perfectly legitimate political positions. Another interesting question is whether this proposed amendment will affect negotiations with Japan over the status of the Kuril Islands. Arguably, it could make it unconstitutional for the Russian government to cede the Kurils to Japan in any future negotiations. However, I suspect that such an act could be interpreted as a ‘demarcation’ or ‘re-demarcation’ of the state boundary, and so permitted.
Fifth, the Russian constitution will now regulate history. It will henceforth say:
The Russian Federation honours the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland, guarantees the defence of historical truth. Diminution of the significance of the people’s achievement in defending the Fatherland is not permitted. Any pronouncement which blackens the achievement of our citizens is unconstitutional.
This clearly has the Second World War in mind, and reflects, among other things, Putin’s angry reaction to Polish and Ukrainian efforts to portray the Soviet Army as having not liberated Eastern Europe, but occupied it, and as such as having been morally equivalent to the Nazis. Having said that, this constitutional clause could apply to just about any war. If someone was to write, for instance, that Russian soldiers betrayed their country by abandoning their posts in World War One, would that not also be ‘diminution of the people’s achievement in defending the Fatherland’? As a historian, I consider this particular amendment entirely unjustifiable. It attempts to dictate historical analysis. I cannot approve.
I imagine that the State Duma will approve all these propositions. Overall, they reflect the conservative and patriotic mood in contemporary Russia, albeit in a somewhat limited way. They also reflect Putin’s style of balancing between different ideological trends. Non-systemic liberals won’t be happy, but systemic liberals get a small bone in the form of a minor shift in power from the president to the State Duma. Conservatives get some family value stuff and a mention of God. Russian nationalists get to feel happy about the mention of the ‘state-forming Russian people’; and Soviet nostalgists can go home happy that Russia is the successor of the USSR and that nobody will dare question the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War. Just about everybody gets a symbolic something, while in practice the system of government carries on much as before.
Assuming that the Duma approves the amendments, they are to be put to a public vote on 22 April (which just happens to be Lenin’s 150th birthday). No doubt they will pass by a large majority.