Constitutional Changes in Russia
Himani Pant, Associate Fellow, VIF

In his annual Presidential address to the Federal Assembly last month1, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a series of amendments “to improve social policy and public administration” in the country. His speech addressed constitutional amendments, reshuffling of the government and a few socio-economic measures for growth and development. A working group of 75 people comprising of legislators, scholars, public figures and politicians was constituted to plan a draft for changes2. The presidential remarks were followed by the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and his cabinet. Medvedev was replaced by Mikhail Mishtustin, former head of the Federal Tax Service, and then appointed as the deputy head of the Security Council. Based on the proposals submitted by the working group to prepare amendments to the Constitution, Putin submitted a draft law “on improving regulation of certain aspects of organizing public authority on 20 January.3 Notably, this was a first major revision of the country’s constitution since 1993 amendment which had strengthened the role of President in Russia. Acting swiftly, the State Duma led by Vyacheslav Volodin Duma tentative approval to the proposed constitutional amendments on 23 January itself4. The nationwide vote on the same is expected to take place in April this year5 for which the development of a voting format is being jointly prepared by the working group and the Central Election Commission.

The proposed changes seek to curb the powers accorded to the President in 1993 while extending the powers of the Parliament. With the changes in place, the Parliament would be able to appoint future Prime Minister as well as Deputy Prime Ministers and federal ministers on the PM’s recommendation. One of the biggest changes in the proposed draft pertains to changing the status of the State Council from an advisory body to an official governing body. Once the amendments are implemented, the Council would be accorded a greater role in determining the course of Moscow’s domestic and foreign policy.6 Many view this as Putin’s maneuver to retain power in hands once he completes his second consecutive term (fourth overall) in the Kremlin. This scenario envisages Putin as the Head of State Council. The projection of Putin as the Head of the State Council has drawn parallels with the Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev who continues to rule behind the scene.7 While this appears to be the most likely scenario, there are certain contradictions which cannot be overlooked.

It is important to note that despite the constitutional amendments, Russia would continue to be a Presidential republic. The proposed constitutional reform is “too cosmetic”8 to fundamentally alter the dynamics brought forth by the 1993 Constitution. As Putin himself noted, Russia cannot function effectively as a parliamentary republic and would continue to remain a presidential republic9. The present changes, while aimed at restricting the President’s power are not necessarily in Parliament’s favour. There is also no elaboration (as yet) on the scope and powers of the President appointed State Council on national projects.10 This is an important aspect with respect to bringing about real changes within the country affecting the lives of common people. It must be recalled here that the Putin had signed an executive order on national goals and strategic objectives in May 2018. It covered crucial areas like demography, better healthcare and living standards and several other important projects 11 aimed at benefiting the larger population.

Apart from the reshuffle of power, the draft also emphasises on the supremacy of the Russian constitution over international treaties and “strengthening the state’s social obligations”.12 This is a significant change given that the country’s national law would constitutionally take precedence over international law. In short, this implies that the rulings of the United Nations or any other international organisations like European Court would not take precedence over national rulings.13 In addition, it also restricts high ranking government officials from having a dual citizenship or a residency permit abroad. Notably, it mandates the prospective Presidential candidates to have resided in the country permanently or at least 25 years (10 years presently) to be eligible to contest the election. This would serve as a blow to opposition figures based abroad who wished to take up important official posts later on.

While the intent behind the amendments is indeed questionable, what stands out in the current context is their seemingly positive framework. In a departure from the past, there is a visible lack of opposition calls towards the proposed amendments14. While there are a few protest calls, they are scattered at best. The absence of Alexey Navalny, Russia’s main opposition face is also a contributing factor towards a lack of opposition voice. Navalny’s tweets15 reflect the dilemma the opposition faces given that Putin has called for amending the very constitution which has for long been considered ‘loathsome’. Another example includes the remarks made by the opposition blogger Yegor Zhukov, who was the “face of dissent” 16 during last year’s protests17 in Russia. He notes, “ensuring that a person cannot hold the office of president for more than two terms in their life, and strengthening the power of the State Duma, are, in principle, awesome changes.”18

In essence, Putin is aiming towards decentralisation of power, something which the opposition has long called for. As for the lack of dissent from public, due to the inherent ambiguity of reforms, “people are not clear what they should express their unhappiness about”.19 Moreover, for a country which protested against the pension reforms only two years ago, indexing of pensions to adjust with inflation is a welcome step. The changes also envisage setting up of a minimum wage at or above the poverty line, which works for common people earning sub-par wages20. Moreover, these changes are projected as steps towards protecting the social rights of citizens by strengthening the concept of a welfare state.

Overall, the proposed amendments are aimed at redistributing power and seek to narrow the gap among the legislative, executive and judicial branches. The moves, when implemented, would reduce the President’s power, albeit slightly-the country would continue to be a Presidential republic. However, a great deal of ambiguity in the ways and means to achieve the proposed targets raises several questions over the future trajectory of the new government. There are several demographic and economic issues plaguing the country at the moment. As noted in Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly itself, several modifications would be made in the existing schemes. Funding and implementation of these measures while undergoing a transition phase following the constitutional shake up would have its own economic challenges. Given the fluidity of the developments, a clearer picture regarding public consensus as well as support would emerge only in the coming months. Whatever the outcome, stability is the key for Russia’s future growth and development. A semblance of stability is also crucial for Russia’s bilateral dealings with India, its key partner, at a time when an array of projects have been agreed upon by the two countries.

References
  1. Vladimir Putin, Presidential Address To the Federal Assembly, 15 January 2020, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/62582 http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/62582
  2. Working group set up to draft proposals for amending the Constitution, 15 January 2020, http://en.kremlin.ru/acts/news/62589
  3. Vladimir Putin submitted to the State Duma draft law amending the Constitution, 20 January 2020, http://en.kremlin.ru/acts/news/62617
  4. The State Duma adopted in the first reading the amendments to the Constitution proposed by the President, 23 January 2020, http://duma.gov.ru/news/47598/
  5. What Changes Is Putin Planning for Russia’s Constitution?, 16 January 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/01/16/what-changes-is-putin-planning-for-russias-constitution-a68928
  6. Putin’s Constitution Dream Team Has Those Who Never Read It, 13 February 2010, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-02-13/putin-s-constitution-dream-team-includes-those-who-never-read-it
  7. Nazarbayev Is Giving Up Presidency, Not Power, in Kazakhstan, 19 March 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/19/nazarbayev-is-giving-up-presidency-not-power-in-kazakhstan/
  8. Putin’s Changes Might Set Russia on the Right Path, 20 January 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/01/20/putins-changes-might-set-russia-on-the-right-path-a68937
  9. Presidential Address To the Federal Assembly, 15 January 2020, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/62582
  10. Peskov refused to comment on the powers of the State Council on national projects, 18 February 2020, https://iz.ru/977473/2020-02-18/peskov-otkazalsia-kommentirovat-polnomochiia-gossoveta-po-natcproektam
  11. The President signed Executive Order On National Goals and Strategic Objectives of the Russian Federation through to 2024 http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/57425
  12. Putin to meet with working group for drafting amendments to Russia’s constitution Thursday, 11 February 2020, https://tass.com/politics/1118709
  13. Planning for a (Not So) Post-Putin Russia, 17 January 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/ 2020/01/17/planning-f or-a-not-so-post-putin-russia-a68931
  14. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/01/20/putin-coup-opposition-leader-navalny-a68973
  15. Alexey Navalny (@Navalny), Twitter, 17 January 2020, https://twitter.com/navalny/status/1218144227894259718
  16. The Russian Student Who Has Become Moscow's New Face Of Dissent, 19 September 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/09/19/761596001/the-russian-student-who-has-become-moscows-new-face-of-dissent
  17. How A Local Vote Rocked Russia: Moscow Election Caps Summer Of Discontent, 6 September 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/how-a-local-vote-rocked-russia-moscow-election-caps-summer-of-discontent/30150471.html
  18. In Wake of Putin’s ‘Coup,’ Russia’s Top Opposition Leader Refrains From Action, 21 January 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/01/20/putin-coup-opposition-leader-navalny-a68973
  19. Putin’s moves leave Russian opposition with few options 18 January 2020, https://apnews.com/bc0dfaff5172aaeed1bb8066cd945db0
  20. Russia pension: Protests over retirement age hikes, 1 July 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-44675582

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62776

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