1993 Constitution Not to Blame for Putin’s Authoritarian System, Shelin Says

File Photo of Kremlin Tower, St. Basil's, Red Square at Night

(Paul Goble – Window on Eurasia – Staunton, December 12, 2018)

Many analysts are inclined to blame the presidentialist nature of the 1993 Russian Constitution for the rise of authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin; but Sergey Shelin argues that is a mistake and that Putin’s approach to rule “arose not because a quarter of a century ago this document was adopted.”

The Rosbalt commentator says that the power vertical at the core of the Putin system has been built on the basis of more or less informal understandings rather than on the basis of constitutions or laws. Thus, whatever defects the constitution has – and it has many, he says – it didn’t provide the road map to today (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2018/12/12/1752413.html).

“The 1993 Constitution is the first Basic Law in Russian history, the initiators of which seriously intended to live and work within its framework. And for a good decade,” Shelin continues, “it could be called effective” in that regard. Indeed, it put into legal form the results of “the small civil war” which had occurred two months before.

And it did so in a remarkable way. “The victors at that time did not seek to make their rule absolute,” and they made it clear by the document they drafted, approved and for a time lived under, “wanted to construct a society of a contemporary type.” The Constitution reflects both of these things.

The constitution combines both a clear definition of rights, so clear that proclaiming them now in the streets could invite arrest, and a clear definition of the powers of the president to control many things, something Putin certainly wants to emphasize. But there is no simple answer to whether the 1993 document ineluctably led to Putinism.

“In October 1993,” Shelin says, “the presidential power won a victory in a difficult struggle and one of these tasks … was to ensure that such a struggle would not begin again, but the authorities did not attempt to legalize its role as the only power in the country.” Instead, it created a number of centers of power under the president.

But that is not the basic problem of the constitution. Its basic weaknesses concern federalism. “At some points, the subjects of the Federation are presented almost as autonomous states, but in others as territories entirely run from above.” The constitution did not resolve these disputes which had roiled the political scene in the early 1990s but simply put them on hold.

Despite its references to a single power system, Shelin says, “the Basic Law would not have interfered with the division of powers and the strengthening of rights if the country had wanted to move in that direction.” A quarter of a century ago, it looked like that might be a possibility. But that hasn’t happened.

“Today,” Shelin concludes, the 1993 Constitution is a monument to our 1990s, with all their unachieved hopes and missed opportunities.” It was not in and of itself a road map to where Russia is now.