Tag Archives: constitutional reform

Putin 2036?

Russian politics keeps turning up surprises, and you have to think that some of them surprise even those at the top of the Russian power system themselves.

When Vladimir Putin proposed amendments to the Russian constitution a few weeks ago, the general reaction of the Western press was to declare the act as a ‘power grab’ and proof that Putin intended to remain in power beyond the end of his last constitutionally permitted term as president in 2024. This narrative had a number of problems. First, since the press had been telling us for years that Putin already had absolute power, it was hard to see how he could be ‘grabbing’ it. Second, once the exact wording of the proposed amendments was announced, it was obvious that far from permitting Putin to stay in office, they guaranteed the opposite. Furthermore, Putin specifically ruled out taking a job other than president, such as head of the State Council, thereby undercutting all the speculation that he was jiggling the system in such a way as to allow himself to continue to be in charge even while not being president. For a while it really did look like Putin would be well and truly gone in 2024.

Until today.

In a completely unexpected development, Valentina Tereshkova, best known for having been the first woman in space but now a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, proposed to the Duma that once the new constitutional amendments come into force, the count of how many times somebody can be president be reset to zero. This would allow Putin to stand once again for president in the election of 2024, and to serve two more terms as far as 2036.

Tereshkova’s proposal seems to have taken the Duma completely by surprise. Worse, nobody knew what to do with it. The idea hadn’t come from the Kremlin – at least not directly – but deputies couldn’t be certain that Tereshkova wasn’t acting as a conduit for Putin, and they didn’t want to vote her idea down just in case she was. What to do? The answer was temporary paralysis, as the Duma tried to find out what Putin really thought, a problem which was resolved only by an emergency meeting attended by the president himself, who turned up at the Duma a short while after Tereshkova made her proposal to make an unscheduled speech. In this, Putin said ,

The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president … In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition – if the Constitutional Court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the Constitution.

In short, Putin gave his consent to the idea, subject to a ruling from the Constitutional Court.

Was this Putin’s aim all along? Did he put Tereshkova up to it? Or was he as blindsided by her proposal as everybody else? It’s not clear. If he’d wanted this, it would have been simpler just to include it in the original amendments. On the other hand, it arguably looks better if it appears to come as a result of some sort of demand from below, especially when voiced by somebody like Tereshkova who has something of a heroic status. But then again, that status means that she has some independent moral authority and doesn’t have to do whatever the Kremlin asks her. So maybe it was her idea after all, and she was acting on her own. In that case, though, why didn’t Putin reject it?

It’s next to impossible to know what’s actually going on here. For the past few weeks, Putin’s been sending strong signals that he really does plan to leave in 2024. So this is quite a reversal. The cynic in me imagines that in a political system as tightly controlled as Russia’s, today’s events can’t have been a surprise to the president. But the way it happened – the temporary paralysis in the Duma, and Putin’s sudden, unscheduled speech – suggest something rather more spontaneous. I pronounce myself flummoxed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean for certain that Putin will stay on as president post-2024. It’s possible that even if permitted to stand again, he’ll decide not to. Nor does it mean, as the Daily Telegraph immediately announced, that Putin would now be president ‘for life’. But it certainly opens up the possibility that he’ll be hanging around in power for a lot longer yet. Having said that the proposed amendments precluded that (as indeed they did before today), I find myself once again contemplating the wisdom of avoiding making firm predictions while engaging in punditry. What’s going to happen next? I don’t know. All we can do is sit back and see how things unfold.




Constitutional update

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.


Communists for God

Discussions about amending the Russian constitution continue. As I mentioned previously, the Russian government has submitted a formal proposal to the State Duma, providing details on how the government believes the constitution should be changed. The proposal has already passed its first reading. In the meantime, however, all sorts of other people have thrown out all sorts of other ideas to tack onto the government’s proposal. Many of these are being discussed in the commission that Vladimir Putin set up to discuss the issue, and it seems possible that some of the ideas will end up before the Duma when the bill to amend the constitution comes up for its second reading in the coming weeks.

Today, for instance, the online newspaper Vzgliad reported that Putin had reacted positively to a suggestion by the Director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovskii that the constitution should be amended to strengthen the idea that ‘culture is Russia’s unique inheritance, which is preserved by the state.’ Responding to Piotrovskii, Putin said that culture ‘is the nation’s DNA, which makes us the multinational Russian [Rossiiskii] people, and shows our originality. We’re thinking of how to do that.’

One integral feature of most cultures is religion. And so it should perhaps not come as a surprise that some people want to include God in the Russian constitution. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church made this proposal a week or so ago, and it rapidly gathered support in influential circles. TV talk show host Vladimir Solovyov, for instance, boosted the idea on his evening show, and now the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, has said that he has no objection. Asked about including God in the constitution’s preamble, Zyuganov commented that,

It’s an image that is in line with the main moral and spiritual values of our state. … When I studied the Bible, the Epistles of Paul the Apostle […] it contains the main slogan of communism: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat.’ As a matter of fact, we borrowed a lot in the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism from the Bible. And if anyone tries to say otherwise, they just have to put those documents side by side.

It may seem odd that the Communists are turning to God, but it’s hardly the first time Zyuganov has done this. In fact, he’s been attempting to fuse communism and Christianity for the best part of three decades. And back in 2014 Patriarch Kirill recognized the Communist leader’s devotion to the Church by awarding him an order ‘for glory and honour’. With the Communists on board (or at least not opposed), the Patriarch’s proposed constitutional amendment has at least some chance of success.

I think that this case is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it shows what happens when the Russian government invites the public for input into fundamental issues connected to the nature and purpose of the state. The government’s own proposal pretty much preserves the liberal autocratic nature of the constitution. But once civil society, including Mr Piotrovskii and Patriarch Kirill, were asked for their ideas, they started introducing matters which the guardians of the liberal autocracy had never considered – most notably, issues of culture and religion start raising their head. It perhaps gives one a sense of the direction Russian politics might take if it indeed became less autocratic.

Second, much has been written in the past 20 years about the alleged political influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Academic studies which I’ve read on the topic suggest that this influence isn’t nearly as great as often claimed. The fate of Patriarch Kirill’s proposal to include God in the constitution will, therefore, be a very valuable case study to determine just how much pull the Church really has. Far from everybody supports Kirill’s amendment. According to Interfax, ‘Russian State Duma Committee on State Building and Legislation Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov has opposed this initiative.’ Putin himself has remained silent on the matter. It will be interesting to see who wins.

And now for the details

Discussing proposed amendments to the Russian constitution a few days ago, I remarked that the devil would be in the details. Well now we have the details. Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin established a 75-person commission to review the constitution, but no soon had it started work than he dispatched a 29-page list of detailed amendments to the Russian parliament for consideration, which makes one wonder what the point of the commission was. Anyway, the proposals (which you can read in Russian here) make for interesting reading, and to some degree confirm my earlier suspicions that there might be rather less to all this than all the hype had led people to believe.

The main thing people have been talking about is Putin’s statement a week ago that the right to appoint the Prime Minister and other members of the Russian government would pass from the president to the State Duma (lower house of parliament). This has been seen as a step towards the creation of a ‘responsible government’ – i.e. a government responsible to parliament. This is not the same as a parliamentary government, and in his speech Putin made it clear that Russia needed to retain a powerful presidency. Yesterday he repeated this thought, saying that due to Russia’s large size and its mix of numerous ethnic and religious groups, parliamentary government was inadvisable and Russia ‘still needs a strong presidential power.’

In fact, as Leonid Bershidsky rightly points out, the proposed constitutional amendments actually augment presidential power in some ways, particularly in terms of the appointment and dismissal of judicial officials. But what is really significant is what the amendments submitted to parliament say about how members of the government will be chosen.

Continue reading And now for the details

Russia reacts

One question I’ve been asked a lot these part couple of days is ‘How have the Russian people reacted to Putin’s proposals to change the country’s constitution?’ If we’re talking about the ordinary Ivan or Elena on the street, it’s hard to say, but according to the polling company VTsIOM, Putin’s popularity rose slightly in the aftermath of his speech, with his approval rating going up from 64 to 67% –  not a huge leap, to be sure, but a sign that people weren’t too unhappy with what he had said. That may, however, have more to do with the other parts of his speech which touched on bread and butter issues. One imagines that these are rather closer to ordinary people’s concerns that issues of constitutional procedure.

The Russian political class, on the other hand, are much exercised by such issues, and so have been making their views well known. The main opposition parties (the Communist (KPFR) and Liberal Democratic (LDPR) parties) were fairly supportive of the constitutional changes. LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky declared that, ‘We have long demanded this [amendments to the constitution], and we are pleased that the president has asked the legislative institutions, above all the parliament, to confirm them.’ Zhirinovsky then proposed an additional, typically eccentric, amendment of his own: ‘We should establish a limit: in the outcome of elections, no single party should receive more than 40 percent of the seats in parliament’, he declared, adding that parliament should always be governed by a coalition.

Meanwhile, deputies from the ruling United Russia party, which can be expected to loyally follow Vladimir Putin’s lead, have undertaken an initiative of their own, putting forward a proposal in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, that would ban political parties who receive funding from abroad or who insult Russian statehood. As the newspaper Kommersant reports, ‘The authors explain that the document was conceived “to limit the activity of oppositional parties” carrying out “anti-Russian propaganda abroad”, citing as an example the Yabloko party. Oppositionists consider the legislative proposal repressive”. As well they might. It’s the kind of stuff which makes you wonder whether giving more power to the State Duma is a good idea.  As I’ve said before, it would be foolish to imagine that a more democratic Russia would be a more liberal one.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that while the ‘systemic opposition’ has given its support to Putin’s proposals, members of Russia’s ‘non-systemic opposition’ have been lining up to denounce them. Fairly typical was the response of the handshakeably liberal newspaper Novaia Gazeta:

In reality, we’re talking in the best case about a change of decoration (Russia will remain a presidential republic, even if not probably a superpresidential one), and in the worst case about a revolution from above which will only strengthen the vertical of power. ‘The most important and significant thing one can extract from [Putin’s] speech is the destruction of the federation; a fatal diminution of the authority of regional organs of power, the rout of local self-government, the destruction of the principle of the power of the people, the defeat of rights, and the destruction of the principle of the equality of citizen,’ lists Elena Lukianova, professor of constitutional and municipal law at the Higher School of Economics.

Likewise, Andrei Nechaev of the Civic Initiative party (associated with the likes of Ksenia Sobchak and Dmitry Gudkov) declared that, ‘The president has decided to concentrate all power in his own hands, appointing a technocratic prime minister with no political ambitions.’ Mikhail Kasyanov, leader of another liberal party – RPR PARNAS – latched onto Putin’s statement that, ‘Russia must remain a strong presidential republic’ to claim that, ‘there will be no real transfer of authority to parliament.’ Instead the proposed reforms would ‘strengthen the vertical [of power] and existing practices, for instance “the president’s direct leadership of the armed forces and all the legal and security system”.’ And Yabloko’s Grigory Yavlinsky complained: ‘The proposed constitutional amendments have nothing in common with Russia’s main problem and won’t in any way improve life in the country … the re-division of powers between president and parliament is a means of resolving a different task – guaranteeing a formal transition of power without real changes. These “checks and balances”  won’t really create a division of powers, but create the possibility for manipulations from on high.’

Finally, one time Kremlin PR-man turned regime critic Gleb Pavlovsky (a favourite rent-a-quote among foreign correspondents) declared:

The real structure of power in the Russian Federation (for simplicity’s sake I call it the ‘system’ even though there’s very little systematic about it) doesn’t work in the manner written down in the Constitution but, as everyone knows, informally. And for now, nobody wants to change that. Thus, the nomination of a candidate for the post of Prime Minister will be preceded, crudely speaking, by a phone call from ‘waiting room no. 1’ … The only change is where the waiting room will be located, in the Kremlin or in the State council – that is to say, in the Kremlin either way.

Much happier than the liberals were representatives of what one might call the ‘democratic’ conservative wing of Russian intellectuals (admittedly a fairly small group). Conservative thinkers Boris Mezhuev and Liubov’ UIianova, for instance, celebrated Putin’s proposals and directed readers to  a recent article by Mezhuev entitled ‘Russian conservatism and popular representation’, joking that perhaps Putin had read it before making his announcement.  The liberals’ despair over the constitutional proposals, Mezhuev suggested on Facebook, derived from the fact that these fighters for ‘freedom’ had assumed that ‘the superpresidential regime would pass into the hands of a liberal successor without much change’ but had now discovered to their dismay that ‘(KPRF leader Gennady) Ziuganov and (LDPR leader Vladimir) Zhirinovsky would be able to put their own people into the chairs of the ministers of education and culture’!

Mezhuev has said before that the key political battle in Russia is between conservative democrats and liberal authoritarians. In line with my last post, the liberals may be right to doubt that much will change because of this. Still, it’s interesting to see the conservatives supporting what purports to be a democratic move, and the liberals opposing it. Interesting, but perhaps not entirely surprising.

Much ado about nothing?

After 6 radio interviews (all in French) and 2 TV interviews in the last 18 hours, I’m feeling all-pundited out, but it strikes that it would be odd if a Russia-dedicated blog didn’t say anything the day after the Russian government resigned en masse. So here’s my ha’p’orth on yesterday’s political developments.

The key point you should bear in mind is that it’s all speculation. As I said repeatedly in my media interviews, ‘I don’t know’, ‘it’s not clear’. While some commentators might try to persuade you otherwise, we don’t actually know why Putin has called for amendments in the Russian constitution, what these amendments are meant to achieve, or why the Russian government resigned en masse. The best we can do is hypothesize.

The main constitutional proposals are that: a) parliament, not the president, appoint the Prime Minister and cabinet; b) the State Council, currently an advisory body, be given formal constitutional status in order to promote unified government; c) candidates for the post of president be limited to those who have resided in Russia for 25 years (not 10 as a present), and dual-citizens be barred; and d) the Russian constitution should take precedence over international law (a proposal clearly targeted at limiting the power of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)).

Among hypotheses explaining these proposals are the following:

  • Putin wants to create a position he can move into in 2024 so as to remain in power. This might be true, but if so, why do it now and limit his own authority as president for the next four years? Wouldn’t it be better to leave it till later in his term? I find this explanation a little unsatisfactory.
  • By dividing power, Putin aims to prevent his successor from being able to take any action against him or other members of the current ruling elite. Again, I’m not entirely convinced by this, as the proposals would make it easier for the parliament and government to move against those currently in authority.
  • Putin is aware that the current system is over-centralized and inflexible and needs shaking up to make it more efficient, in part by devolving authority and introducing more political competition. This is certainly what Putin has hinted at, but for the reasons laid out below I’m not at all sure the proposals will actually produce the desired result.

There may be other explanations, and frankly your guess is as good as mine as to which is true. We don’t know what’s going on in Vladimir Putin’s head. Similarly, we’re not in a position to say why Medvedev and his government resigned. Were they blindsided by Putin’s constitutional proposals and felt obliged to quit, or was it that Putin had lost confidence in them and thought that this was an appropriate moment to push them out? I think it’s kind of futile to speculate. Consequently, the ‘why’ of all this interests me rather less than the likely results, for which reason I think it’s worth examining them in a bit more depth.

In line with the third hypothesis above, it makes sense, therefore, to consider questions such as ‘Will these reforms fundamentally change the way Russia is governed’, ‘Will they improve the way Russia is governed’, ‘Will they make Russian government more competitive, more responsive, etc?’ Again, the true answer has to be ‘I don’t know’. But here are some thoughts to help guide thoughts on the subject.

Continue reading Much ado about nothing?