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Putin’s constitutional changes reflect the needs of a fortified state

Vladimir Putin © Alexey Babushkin/RIA Novosti

Russia’s ‘super-presidential’ 1993 Constitution was forged in blood after violent upheaval, at a time when the country was on its knees. It is logical that it would be revisited when modern Russia had finally come of age.

What is so problematic with the current 1993 Constitution, and what are the reasons behind the proposed amendments? The answers can be found in the circumstances under which President Boris Yeltsin’s document came into effect and in the major transformation that Russia has undergone since then.

First of all, it is necessary to stress that Russia in 1993 and Russia in 2020 are essentially two different countries. In 1993, it was a bleak shadow of the Soviet Union, with a grim present and uncertain future. Yeltsin, along with Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrey Kozyrev and other liberal-minded members of his team, were doggedly pushing their country into the American sphere of influence. 

It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Yeltsin’s Constitution – adopted just two months after his team’s undemocratic usurpation of power (by means of shelling and storming the parliament during the October putsch) – wasn’t fit for its purpose as the supreme law of a great power. Instead, it legitimized the servicing of Western elites and Washington in particular. 

The widely known consequences of such policies had been tragic for Russia, as it descended into a decade of lawlessness, poverty, and war.

In 2020, the situation is completely different. President Vladimir Putin’s policies have been by and large ‘Russia first’, in comparison with those of Yeltsin, and have enjoyed widespread support among the ruling elites as well as the general population.

New Reality

Moreover, today’s Russia is a strong regional power and a major player in global politics, which no country in the world, including the US, can ignore. It is also relatively stable and more independent; therefore, the proposed ‘new’ Constitution, unlike the 1993 edition, is a domestic effort, rather than an externally ‘inspired’ formation. 

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that certain Western media – and some Western-leaning press outlets within Russia – have launched such a fierce campaign aimed at discrediting the vote and the proposed amendments.

The poll offers Russian citizens the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to express their approval or refusal of the proposed package that involves a wide range of topics, such as the strengthening of sovereignty and independence, social guarantees, civilizational vision, governance model, new priorities, the role of the state in the lives of its citizens, and the place of Russia in the emerging multipolar world. As the amendment to Article 79 reads: 

“The Russian Federation takes measures to support and strengthen international peace and security, to provide for the peaceful coexistence of nations and states, to prevent interference in the internal affairs of the state.”

One of the amendments confirms today’s Russia as the successor of the Soviet Union, in particular, in relation to “assets of the USSR outside of the Russian Federation territory.” This change, which for obvious reasons could not have been included by the authors of Yeltsin’s Constitution, seems to indicate the intention to recover some Soviet assets currently held by certain statesmen in the post-Soviet space, given the fact that Russia has paid off the debt of all of the Soviet republics, including Ukraine.

There is also a clause outlining the superiority of the Constitution of the Russian Federation in the event of it being contradicted by certain “decisions of inter-state agencies, made on the basis of their interpretation of provisions of international treaties of the Russian Federation.”

Such great power assumptions were practically impossible in 1993. However, they do correspond to modern-day Russia, which may indeed purport to be one of the centers of influence in 2020, alongside states such as the US, which has long put its national interest above any international treaties. 

Furthermore, other changes forbid those holding foreign citizenship and residency permits abroad from holding a number of high public office positions, thus preventing the ‘political legionnaires’ phenomenon, not uncommon in certain neighboring states with low levels of sovereignty, from appearing in Russia. This proposed change concerns all the top officials of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation, heads of federal state bodies, senators, deputies of the State Duma, the Commissioner for Human Rights, judges, and prosecutors. 

There are more limitations in regards to presidential candidates, who are ineligible to run if they have previously held foreign citizenship and have lived in Russia for less than 25 years (with an exception for residents of Crimea). These amendments certainly further strengthen Russia’s sovereignty and independence at the highest legislative level.

There are also a number of rather interesting alterations, such as the one that provides for the potential formation of federal territories within Russia. Judging by recent comments from Senator Andrey Klishas, these would be regions with a special status, most likely serving either a military or an ecological purpose, and controlled directly by Moscow rather than regional government officials. 

Something similar already exists in a number of countries, including the US. It must be noted that this is one of many proposed amendments that provide for further centralization of powers and tighter control at all levels – from the executive branch of the Federation to local governments. Among them are several amendments to the fourth chapter of the Constitution, which essentially transform the super-presidential regime into the hyper-presidential regime, giving the president even greater powers at the expense of other authorities. 

For instance, if the amendments are adopted, the president will be able to dismiss the prime minister, appoint and dismiss the prosecutor general, stall the legislative process in order to check the proposed bills for their constitutionality, and much more. 

However, we must also point out a number of proposed limitations, such as the amendment to Article 81, which provides for a two-term limit for future presidents of the Russian Federation. 

Perhaps the authors of these amendments have been studying the Chinese experience from the years of rapid economic growth under Hu Jintao (and Jiang Zemin) in terms of combining a highly centralized system of governance and control with regular rotation at the top. 

Rule forever?

Of course, we cannot ignore the change that would allow Putin to run for president again in 2024. However, taking into account the Russian president’s pragmatism, one may suppose that this is possibly a distraction maneuver and an instrument of political insurance. There is a concept in international politics known as ‘lame duck’, which is used to indicate the vulnerability of an outgoing political leader. More often than not they are not taken seriously due to their waning influence, both within the country and on the global arena, which is rather dangerous in today’s turbulent world.

Putin is probably not planning to run in 2024 (unless as a last resort) but instead to move on to play a coordinating role in the background, which can be deduced from amendments granting the outgoing president immunity (which can also be revoked), as well as an opportunity to become a lifelong member of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament).

It must be added that immunity for an outgoing president is hardly a novelty in the short history of modern Russia, seeing as 20 years ago it was granted to Yeltsin (and members of his family) by Putin’s own decree. 

We should also note that apart from the former president (and regional representatives), the Federation Council may also include up to 30 appointed senators, seven of whom may be lifelong members of the council. It can be assumed that these amendments have been proposed for the purpose of a smooth transfer of power and the preservation of overall stability, taking into account the United Kingdom (House of Lords) and the United States (Senate).

In addition to all of the above, we must also underline a number of civilizational amendments, which define culture, historical truth, and the interests of compatriots abroad as objects that must be protected from potential threats, and ‘bring God’ into the Constitution, which is a rather standard practice among many developed states (e.g. Australia, Canada, Germany, etc.) 

This fits Putin’s conservative and traditionalist policies of the last eight years and signals the return of ideology in the Constitution for the first time since the USSR days – i.e. Russia once again gains its own civilizational development program, which can be put forward and presented to the rest of the world. This means that, if the proposed amendments are accepted, Russia shall purport to play the role of one of the main poles of influence in the emerging multipolar system.

Finally, among the proposed amendments there are also quite a few society- and people-oriented elements that may be found in constitutions of social democratic and even socialist states. For instance, the state guarantees a minimum wage no less than the subsistence level, ‘regular indexation of pensions and benefits’ and ‘targeted social support’, which is bound to be received well by the elderly who have traditionally backed Putin – many of whom have been upset by the 2018 pension age reform. 

There are also a number of other Soviet-esque changes, such as the one guaranteeing ‘protection of dignity’ and ‘respect for the person of labor’ that are meant to resonate well with those longing for the Soviet times – which, interestingly enough, include some of those born after the Soviet collapse. Also, there is a suggestion of more intense participation of the state in the lives of its citizens, in their upbringing, moral education, and even health, which seems to bring a certain degree of biopolitics into the equation. 

This once again suggests that Russia may indeed follow the ‘Chinese path’, not only uniting the economic features of the socialist and capitalist systems, but also increasing the role of the state, which may go against the liberal ideals of individualism and may discourage the more liberal-minded minority from supporting the amendments. 

On the other hand, children and the disabled have been defined as the key priorities of Russia’s state policy. The amendments also provide state support to scientific-technological progress and environmentalism, which adds ecopolitics, humanitarianism, and progressivism to the equation and gives a postmodern edge to the new version of the Constitution. 

Overall, the proposed amendments present a rather diverse and eclectic aggregate of ideas and a democratic vote is certainly a better validation mechanism than a violent coup. Russia has come a long way since 1993.

By Ernest A Reid, a British political analyst. IMESS in Politics & Security. UCL SSEES Alumnus. Westminster Russia Forum Ambassador. Guest Expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). @ErnestAReid

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