Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Toward a Putin Constitution?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 12 – Russian attitudes toward constitutions are different from those of people in many other countries. Instead of viewing the basic law as a framework for the actions of the state over a long period of time, Russians have come to expect that their constitutions will change as their Kremlin leaders do.

            Thus, over the last 100 years, they have had a Lenin Constitution, a Stalin Constitution, a Brezhnev Constitution, and what many call the Yeltsin Constitution of 1993.  Now, given how often President Vladimir Putin has violated the provisions of that document, ever more people in Moscow are talking about the possibility of the appearance of a “Putin Constitution.”

            As Badma Byurchiyev points out on Kavpolit.com, the Russian president has violated the constitution so often that “the basic law is changing” even while it remains “unchanged.”  Now, he says, it appears that even Putin is open to the possibility of replacing the existin constitution with a new one (kavpolit.com/uroki-deleniya/).

            Last Thursday, the Russian president met with Russian university specialists on constitutional law. At that time, he said that discussing the Constitution was entirely appropriate and that “if the quantity of these proposals passes into a corresponding quality, then it will be clear that society has matured” and is ready to accept “some serious changes in the text.”

            At the same time, however, the Russian leader added that he whole question must be approached “very carefully,” because too frequent changes in the basic law can threaten “constitutional stability.”

            However that may be, Byurchiyev said, Putin’s words were a clear “message to the bureaucrats” who are likely to draw the following conclusion: “it is possible to introduce changes into the constitution” but that society “must be prepared” for them through “an increase in the quantity of proposals from below.”

            What is the best way to do that? The Kavpolit.com commentator asks rhetorically. “Very simply by continuing to play the game that ‘he who is not with us’” is against us and introduce more laws that violate the provisions of the existing 1993 constitution so that the population will get used to the idea that that document must be replaced.

            In a commentary on Politcom.ru yesterday, Tatyana Stanovaya, the analytic administration of the Center for Political Technologies, provides some additional details on this possibility.  On the one hand, she points out, the current constitution has lasted longer than its Soviet predecessor ().

            And on the other, the possibility of correcting or replacing the current constitution has been the subject of ever more frequent discussions this year as the regime has sought to counter the rising tide of popular opposition and the latter’s call for observing the provisions of the 1993 basic law.

              Stanovaya points out that the public discussion of the Russian constitution has touched mostly on two issues – federalism and local self-government – but has not focused at all on the basic features of “the political regime.”  Indeed, these conversations have “crudely speaking” been about “how to secure the Constitution from instability by introducing changes into it.”

            But she suggests that there is another issue at work, one that simultaneously provides arguments for those who want to change the constitution and those who don’t: the need to back up the Kremlin’s argument that the Russian constitution must take precedence over the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

            Moscow has been losing most of the enormous number of cases citizens of the Russian Federation have brought to that court, and Putin would clearly like to change that. Living up to the provisions of the existing constitution would reduce the number of cases, but adopting a new one that declared the Russian basic law superior to international courts would do the same.

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