Wednesday, December 12, 2018

1993 Constitution Not to Blame for Putin's Authoritarian System, Shelin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 12 – Many analysts are inclined to blame the presidentialist nature of the 1993 Russian Constitution for the rise of authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin; but Sergey Shelin argues that is a mistake and that Putin’s approach to rule “arose not because a quarter of a century ago this document was adopted.”

            The Rosbalt commentator says that the power vertical at the core of the Putin system has been built on the basis of more or less informal understandings rather than on the basis of constitutions or laws. Thus, whatever defects the constitution has – and it has many, he says – it didn’t provide the road map to today (

            “The 1993 Constitution is the first Basic Law in Russian history, the initiators of which seriously intended to live and work within its framework. And for a good decade,” Shelin continues, “it could be called effective” in that regard.  Indeed, it put into legal form the results of “the small civil war” which had occurred two months before.

            And it did so in a remarkable way. “The victors at that time did not seek to make their rule absolute,” and they made it clear by the document they drafted, approved and for a time lived under, “wanted to construct a society of a contemporary type.” The Constitution reflects both of these things.

            The constitution combines both a clear definition of rights, so clear that proclaiming them now in the streets could invite arrest, and a clear definition of the powers of the president to control many things, something Putin certainly wants to emphasize. But there is no simple answer to whether the 1993 document ineluctably led to Putinism.

            “In October 1993,” Shelin says, “the presidential power won a victory in a difficult struggle and one of these tasks … was to ensure that such a struggle would not begin again, but the authorities did not attempt to legalize its role as the only power in the country.”  Instead, it created a number of centers of power under the president.

            But that is not the basic problem of the constitution. Its basic weaknesses concern federalism. “At some points, the subjects of the Federation are presented almost as autonomous states, but in others as territories entirely run from above.” The constitution did not resolve these disputes which had roiled the political scene in the early 1990s but simply put them on hold.

            Despite its references to a single power system, Shelin says, “the Basic Law would not have interfered with the division of powers and the strengthening of rights if the country had wanted to move in that direction.” A quarter of a century ago, it looked like that might be a possibility. But that hasn’t happened.
            “Today,” Shelin concludes, the 1993 Constitution is a monument to our 1990s, with all their unachieved hopes and missed opportunities.” It was not in and of itself a road map to where Russia is now.

Putin Making Same Mistake with Non-Russians Alexander III Did, Venediktov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 12 – With its push to make non-Russians learn Russian but not have the chance to learn their own, the Putin regime is repeating the mistakes the last tsars did, mistakes that mobilized all the non-Russians against them and contributed to the revolutions of the early 20th century, according to Aleksey Venediktov, the editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy.

            And the Kremlin is making these mistakes at a time when the non-Russians and especially the Muslims are increasing in number and commitment to their faith.  As a result of the center’s policies, the national minorities and republics are becoming “’the main threat’ to Russia” ( and

            About two years ago, he told Sergey Minayev of the Russian version of Esquire, a senior law enforcement official said to him the following, Venediktov continues. “Do you know how quickly they are building mosques in the Middle Volga? Do you now that only young people go there?” while in Russia only “grandmothers in kerchiefs” go to church.

            As a result, the editor said, he can easily imagine the formation of a large state, “Volga Bulgaria” in the Middle Volga region.

            “The main thing,” he argued, “is current administration’s struggle against national languages is a mistake. I have said this publicly. For people this is a very sensitive issue. Remember 1917: the policy of Aleksandr III toward languages led 20 years later to a revolution which was supported by all national minorities in the country.”

            “They saw in Russian imperialism a threat to their culture. And the very same thing happened in the 1990s,” Venediktov suggested. 

            For better or worse, Vladimir Putin “always was an imperialist and not a nationalist.” There is “a big difference” between the two.  I too am an imperialist and a conservative; therefore, I understand him very well. I have always said that nationalism – Russian, Jewish, Tatar – could break up Russia.”

            “We ourselves demand from the Latvians: ‘Guys! Russians who live with you must have the chance to study in Russian.’ At the same time, they must know Latvian, the state language. The same thing, we are demanding from Ukrainians. Why do we ourselves take a different position in our own country?  That is where the chief threat lies.” 

‘If Government Won’t Help Us, We Don’t Owe It Anything,’ Russians Increasingly Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 12 – There has been a sea change in Russian attitudes toward the powers that be over the last six months, one captured by the now oft-heard observation that “if the government won’t help us, we don’t owe it anything in return,” according to a new study which predicts more protests and more protest voting in the year ahead.

            The study, entitled “The Protest Space in Russia: Forms and Practice,” was prepared by the Moscow Institute for Regional Expertise and has now been summarized by URA news agency journalists Yevgeny Padanov and Stanislav Zakharkin who argue that it shows the emergence of “a new political reality” (

            Before 2008, there was a social contract based on the state giving Russians with a higher standard of living in exchange for political loyalty. But now, that contract has dissolved, the report says. “Today’s Russia has a new political reality,” one characterized by “a lowering of paternalistic attitudes” and by “disappointment in the functioning of government institutions.”

            This has happened, the report says, because of the intensification of various social problems, including a declining standard of living, the crisis in education and health care and environmental issues. This year, the pension reform, the increase in the VAT, and gas price rises added to them.”

            “Under these conditions,” the report continues, “the population is ready to vote practically for any candidate capable of aggregating protest attitudes and often simply against the powers that be,” as happened in three federal subjects in September. “In 2019, the list of regions with such a result could increase in length.”

            But these attitudes are going to be reflected not just in elections but also in a growth in the number of street protests. Independent urban activists will play a key role, given that regional branches of the parties aren’t currently capable of responding to the shifts in popular attitudes. And thus “’extra-systemic players’” will play a growing role.

            Among the focal points of protest, the report suggests, will be socio-economic, ethnic, and environmental issues.

            All this is happening because “the powers that be are ignoring the dissatisfaction of society and are not able to communicate with the population: Declarations like ‘macaroni always costs the same’ or ‘the state didn’t ask you to be born’ are viewed by a significant number of people as evidence of a complete break of bureaucrats with reality and of an extreme cynicism.”

            That only intensifies social unhappiness with the current system.

            If the powers that be try to use only administrative measures to keep people in line, the report concludes, that will be taken by an ever-growing number of Russians as evidence that the powers that be are inadequate to the job of running the country.