Staunton, May 10 – The coronavirus pandemic has given an unexpected pause to Russia’s latest drive toward changing the constitution and thus an opportunity not to be missed to reflect on what constitutional changes Russia needs as opposed to those which are simply a convenience to its ruler of the day, Vladimir Pastukhov says.
To put things in more lapidary language, the London-based Russian scholar suggests, Russia’s struggle with the medical coronavirus has given it an opportunity to focus on something at least equal in important, “the other coronavirus” the country suffers from, a “political” one (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/05/10/85318-konstitutsionnaya-vaktsinatsiya).
The constitutional amendments Vladimir Putin wants would “in fact zero out an enormous era the beginning of which was laid down not by Gorbachev but by the 20th Congress, which almost 65 years ago unmasked the cult of the harshest Russian tyrant.” His changes would keep him in power for life, but that isn’t the real problem Russia faces today.
“The problem I see,” Pastukhov continues, is that if one thinks not about the replacement of individuals but about the replacement of a system of power, then the departure of Putin on which is concentrated too much attention by itself will solve practically nothing.”
“With a great likelihood, Russia after Putin, having lived through a small or large time of troubles or split up into parts either will return to its former autocratic way, under the iron hand of a new leader.” The name will change but not the system. What is really needed is to find a vaccine against the political coronavirus or a sacral authoritarianism Russia suffers from.
According to Pastukhov, “Russian statehood arose from the same Judeo-Christian cultural roots as West European statehood. But its evolution followed a different path.” Europeans demystified the ruler and replaced it with the abstract nation, while Russia made the sacred quality of the ruler central to its political system.
A certain de-sacralization of power did occur, “but in an extremely strange way.” The state as bureaucracy was demystified and lowered in the estimation of the population even as the ruler was made even more mystically sacred and even “the ombudsman” of the people against the bureaucracy.
In Russia, the supreme ruler became as it were “the surrogate of the West European nation, sublimated in a really existing individual,” Pastukhov argues. The supreme ruler can control the state bureaucracy then “only becauses he always remained not subject to the control of anyone.”
This system is remarkably stable but inevitably ineffective because it either sparks revolution against a sitting ruler or cannot pass on power to a new one without a serious struggle. It is thus “an historical dead end.” And that has been obvious for a long time and is obvious under Putin today.
“Putin rules Russia like the head of a liquidation commission: his goal is to save” the shares for himself and his allies. “He imitates movement forward.” And he changes the basic system not at all. As a result, each new ruler “is condemned to be a parody on the Putin regime, albeit with fewer resources and fewer possibilities.
Many have assumed that the only way out is to force Russia to adopt a constitutional arrangement like those in Europe, but that invariably has failed and will fail again because there is lacking the cultural foundations and experiences which allowed Europeans to adopt them. Imposing them on Russia will simply generate a backlash sooner or later.
Pastukhov argues that the best way forward may be to use the Russian vision of the sacredness of the ruler against itself, by seeking to promote first two and then several centers of sacred power, thus creating what he calls “sacred multi-centricity.” And he proposes as a first step giving the prime minister real power derived from the parliament over the state but maintaining the legitimacy of the president over the country.
Setting this up and institutionalizing it will not be easy, the London scholar suggests. But it would put in train forces that would end the compulsion to dictatorship among anyone who becomes the nation’s leader and thus open the way for a law-based state with real division of powers and involvement of the population.
Such a development would be possible only by gradual means rather than a revolution: indeed, a revolution however pleasing it might be to those who make it would likely end with exactly the restoration of the old system under new names. Only gradualism, Pastukhov suggests, will give Russia a chance to escape autocracy “not for a couple of years but forever.”