Staunton, January 28 – In most countries, constitutions are intended to serve as a framework for political life over many generations and be changed only rarely, Georgy Bovt points out; but in Russia, there is a tradition of adopting a new constitution almost with each new leader and thus having a Stalin constitution and a Brezhnev one.
That raises the question, the Moscow commentator says, whether the changes Vladimir Putin is putting in place will outlast him and work just as well for his successors or whether these successors will have to change the basic law as well. In short, is this constitution only for Putin or will it outlast him? (snob.ru/entry/187769/).
It is common ground, Bovt says, that the changes Putin is putting in place are intended to help him rule the country, “but how could this new system work without Putin?” That is not a question that many are asking now, but it is an important one if Russia is going to have a constitution worthy of the name and more important that will last and gain authority.
The US Constitution has lasted more than 200 years with remarkably few changes because it is based on a skeptical view of human nature and includes checks and balances not only within the federal government but is based on clear divisions of authority between Washington and the states.
Some presidents, like Franklin Roosevelt, have chafed under its restrictions and tried to break them as he did when he proposed to pack the Supreme Court with his supporters. But the authority of the constitution was so great that the entire political class and the entire population rose almost as one to block him from doing so.
Not only did that cost him authority at the time, but it meant that after his death, the US decided to impose yet another restriction on the president, limiting him to two terms. Today, it is difficult to imagine what Donald Trump would do if he had unlimited power. But “he knows the limits of his ‘impulses, and American courts (even the Supreme Court) have several times put him in his place.” That reflects the authority of the Constitution.
The experience of the Soviet Union and Russia with their constitutions is very different. Stalin had one constitution; Brezhnev had another. But both had limitations and both led to unfortunate consequences, the latter even opening the way for the disintegration of the USSR, Bovt says.
“The national-territorial division of the USSR had an artificial character, having laid numerous ‘mines’ under the unity of the state. Another ‘artificial’ article concerning the leading and directing role of the CPSU which was inserted under Brezhnev, turned out to be in fact meaningless” when large numbers of demonstrators came into the streets of Moscow.
“And ‘the supreme legislative organ,’ the Supreme Soviet, was completely incapable of action,” the Moscow commentator continues. In short, the whole system worked when the power configuration and the personalities of those in office was one way but collapsed when real power and real personalities changed.
This problem continued with the 1993 Constitution, drafted and adopted under Boris Yeltsin. If someone else had been president, the constitution would have been different. Now, Russia is engaged in changing the constitution fundamentally. Everyone is convinced that it will work for Putin, but few are asking whether it will work for anyone else.
If one thinks about it, however, Bovt continues, one sees that it creates all kinds of possibilities for conflict within existing or new institutions or among them that Putin may be able to keep in check but that there are no constitutional checks and balances to ensure that will remain the case after his passage.
Some of them, such as a split between the State Council and the president or the rise of a parliament in which no one party has a super majority, could overturn what is being done in the absence of Putin and lead to more unpredictable changes ahead, changes that won’t happen with Putin but almost certainly will without him.
That is what constitutions are supposed to prevent as the US one largely has. It is not what Soviet or Russian constitutions have done in the past; and there seems to be little reason to think that it will be able to do that in the future, Bovt suggests by way of a pessimistic conclusion.