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.