Saturday, January 18, 2020

Putin’s Proposed Constitutional Changes Raise Two Questions -- Why? and How? Inozemtsev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 15 – Vladimir Putin’s proposals to change the constitution bring to mind the anecdote about the Decembrists who, when they came out to support Konstantin in opposition to Nicholas I in 1825, chanted “Constantine and Constitution,” imagining that the latter was the wife of the former rather than something more, Vladislav Inozemtsev says.    

            In the almost two centuries since that time, constitutions in Russia have played a role much less than as the definer of the political system, the Russian economist says; and consequently, Putin’s latest proposals inevitably lead one to ask: why? And how? (

            “Why” is the more important question because many of the proposals Putin has made do not require constitutional change. Ordinary laws could change the rules on dual citizenship of officials, the role of the State Council, the procedures for appointing ministers, and definition of the standard of living,” Inozemtsev says.

            “Not one of these needs to be introduced” into the constitution to take effect, he argues.

            “We have all seen quite well how effectively the authorities have been able over the course of the law two decades to limit the rights of citizens to participation in political activity, freedom of speech and assembly and much else besides without any change in the text of the basic law of the country. Why this is needed no is unclear.”

            Two explanations are possible, Inozemtsev says. “On the one hand, the most important detail may be that with the adoption of a large number of changes, the Constitution may be treated as a new basic law,” thus ushering in new era in which terms of office under the previous constitution won’t be a limit on terms under a new one.

            Other former Soviet republics, Belarus and Kazakhstan, have used that device, and so perhaps Putin has decided to use it in the case of the Russian Federation.

             “On the other hand,” the Russian economist says, “there is the chance that the Constitution is going to be changed in order to restore elements of collective leadership of the Soviet type and make the State Council the central element in the government, something like a new Politburo.”

            The problem with this hypothesis is that Putin himself has directly declared that “Russia must remain a strong presidentialist republic.”  Consequently, one is forced to ask oneself why didn’t Putin just dismiss the prime minister, boosting his own rating and continuing “’stability’” rather than begin at the same time to talk about changing the constitution.

            “I do not have an answer to this question,” Inozemtsev says; “but it is perfectly obvious that the first variant with continuing elections of Putin without any alternative is counterproductive and the immediate transfer of power to the State Council is doubtful” as a strategy or tactic.

            The question of “how” is equally murky.  When Medvedev as president sought constitutional changes in 2008, he got the Duma to vote for them and then had them approved by the legislative assemblies of the federal subjects.  For minor changes, that is the only appropriate means; for more serious ones, Russia must convene a Constitutional Assembly.

            The problem with that, of course, is that such an assembly may decide not to make any changes; and that any changes proposed will have to be approved by two-thirds of the members of this body or be subject to a plebiscite of the entire population of the Russian Federation, an action with uncertain political consequences.

            “Here one can note two circumstances,” Inozemtsev says.  “First, despite the fact that the Constitution was adopted 28 years ago, there has not yet arise a situation which would require it to be changed other than by the State Duma.”  If the Kremlin plans for more radical changes, it needs to push through a law defining the Constitutional Assembly.

            And “second, the president’s declaration about the prospects of submitting changes that may be worked out to a referendum appears completely absurd simply because changes are not adopted in this way according to Article 9” of the existing constitution.

            “In other words,” the economist continues, “there is now no clarity on the procedures of introducing changes, with the exception of the fact that the Kremlin wants to introduce them as necessary and have them adopted as quickly as possible.” But this is a high-risk approach that could lead to several constitutions which would not be “completely legitimate.”

            “Of course,” Inozemtsev says, “Vladimir Putin is someone of a non-traditional political orientation who has ruled the country for 20 years” and has regularly ignored the rules the constitution establishes. But ignoring the constitution and trying to change it in fundamental ways are two different things.

            “It is one thing to divorce one’s wife who has not taken any part in political life” and it is quite another to use constitutional changes as a means to that end, especially if the leader in the Kremlin wants to continue to pretend that his rule is legal and democratic.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that he or many others understand that risk.

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