Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Russia Now Confronted by ‘Hybrid' Amendments to the Constitution, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 6 – Vladimir Putin has given Russia “a hybrid war, a hybrid state, and hybrid democracy,” Vladimir Pastukhov says, and now he has presented the country with “hybrid amendments to the constitution,” hybrid in the sense that they touch basic principles that require a Constitutional Assembly but that he wants to treat as if they don’t.

            “In essential ways,” the London-based Russian analyst says, “these amendments touch the founding principles of the Constitution, the principle of the priority of human rights and the principle of direct recognition of the norms of international law and generally-recognized principles of international law” (

            The changes Putin wants to insert in the basic law “make a colossal step backward from these principles which were declared in 1993.” Instead, if they are adopted, they will move the country backward either to communist principles or to those of corporate states in Western Europe in the 1930s.

            That means these proposed amendments are fundamental because they represent a departure from the liberal principles of the existing text, Pastukhov says; and it also means that Russia needs to approve them as the constitution specifies by the convention of a Constitutional Assembly.

             But by proceeding in this hybrid way, Putin wants to “mask” this fact and thus people are talking about adopting them either as if they are not fundamental rather than adopting a federal law on a Constitutional Assembly, a step the country’s leaders have failed to do over the last 25 years.

            The Kremlin leader understands this dilemma and wants to “find a third path,” and hence there is talk about a plebiscite even though that doesn’t exist in Russian law. To be sure, the word “plebiscite” fits the situation: “the plebs are called upon to vote for some decision proposed by the boyars, the essence and meaning of which the plebs need not understand.”

            What all this resembles most of all, of course, are the “all-people discussions” in Soviet times when everyone understood that whatever was said, the party program would be adopted. And they understood it as “one of the forms of mobilization of mass consciousness” like something out of Orwell.

            The 1993 Constitution contained many provisions which required specification by means of the adoption of a federal law. Such laws were in fact adopted for all of these, save one – a law about a Constitutional Assembly.  As a result, Pastukhov says, that body is to this day “one of the most mysterious pages of the constitutional history of post-communist Russia.”

            Such a law needs to be adopted if the country is to approve what are fundamental changes in the basic law. The Kremlin wants to act as if it isn’t changing enough to require that, but a law needs to be written to define how amendments that many can see touch fundamental issues could be considered and either approved or rejected.

            Once such a law is in place, Pastukhov says, everything will be clear: for minor changes, the Federal Assembly can pass a law to be ratified by regional assemblies; for fundamental ones, the country must have a Constitutional Assembly. There is no third path despite what some say about a plebiscite. 

            It is long past time to recognize this issue as being at the center of current debates. Everything else is indeed secondary, the London-based scholar concludes.

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