Staunton, October 25 – Each time the USSR or the Russian Federation adopted a new constitution, the basic laws of the republics had to be rewritten to bring them into correspondence with it. Now that the Russian Constitution of 1993 has been fundamentally changed by amendment, the same process is beginning again.
How this is being carried out in many places may be indicated by what is known or more precisely what is not known about the situation in Mari El. There, in July, officials announced a commission to rewrite the constitution; but in the months since, its meetings have been behind closed doors and nothing more has become known (idelreal.org/a/30909034.html).
This secrecy is disturbing because it represents a sharp departure from the last redrafting in the mid-1990s when participants say the process was quite open with deputies, officials and ordinary residents expressing their views at meetings and in the media. And these discussions were ensured by a law on the Constitutional Assembly of Mari El, adopted in February 1995.
Once a draft was prepared, it was subject to an all-republic discussion, in which participants offered 1270 proposals for modifications. And the republic parliament included some 120 of these in the final draft. In short, the process was both open and inclusive, a departure from Soviet practice and very different from what is happening now.
The fact that the open process of 1994-1995 is not being repeated at least in Mari El leads to three disturbing conclusions. First, the Kremlin does not want discussions about the constitutions of the republics to lead to new demands for real federalism and declarations as earlier basic laws had of the sovereignty of the republics.
Second, instead of making the adoption of a new republic constitution a major event, Moscow is clearly playing it down, part of an effort to avoid comparisons between the republics, on the one hand, and predominately ethnic Russian oblasts and krays, on the other. Obviously, avoiding any talk about republic sovereignty is a way to avoid talk about its lack elsewhere.
And third, and perhaps most ominously, at least some in the Russian capital may republic constitutions to disappear as yet another step to the downgrading of the republics to the status of federal subjects like all others. As long as the republics have constitutions, that is harder to do. Consequently, how Moscow orchestrates the rewriting of republic basic laws may prove fateful.