Changing the Russian Constitution Fraught with Dangers, Experts Say

Russian Constitutional Court file photo

(Window on Eurasia – Paul Goble – Staunton, November 18, 2013) The Moscow media are full of stories that President Vladimir Putin plans to propose changes in the 1993 Russian Constitution in a message to the Federal Assembly on December 12 and will announce the establishment of a special 90-person Presidential council to consider and draft revisions.

But some Russian experts are already warning that the process itself is fraught with dangers even if Putin gets his way because discussions about such fundamental issues will inevitably divide those who will lose power as a result of such changes and those who stand to gain and may even call into question the stability of the country.

While Russians are more accustomed to seeing their constitution changed or even entirely replaced than other peoples and while many in the Russian political elite are thus comfortable in principle with the idea, many are beginning to ask which possible changes will be cosmetic and therefore meaningless and which ones will be transforming.

On the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal, Anton Mardasov surveys some of these attitudes.  Dmitry Gudkov, a member of the Duma committee on constitutional law, says that revising the constitution opens the door to other changes as well, including a new round of evaluating which Russian laws are consistent with it and which are not (svpressa.ru/politic/article/77481/).

“We have a mass of laws which in principle contradict the Constitution,” he says, but any plans to change the constitution or revise the laws are likely to be resisted because those proposing these changes are doing so “only to increase their own power.”

Sergey Davidis, a member of the Coordinating Council of the Opposition, says that the Putin regime has already changed the constitution a number of times as when it lengthened the term of the president. Consequently, the current discussion suggests that it has more than “stylistic” changes on its mind.

But the changes Putin may want are not necessarily those that others do.  The Russian president may want a more authoritarian constitution, but his opponents would like one that would restore the division of powers and guarantee the independence of the courts. Consequently, changing the constitution could spark more conflict rather than help resolve it.

Yuri Slobodkin, a legal specialist at the Moscow Institute of Electronic Technology, says that “the authorities will not change anything fundamental in the Constitution because this is dangerous.”  They won’t change the first and second paragraphs because they define the foundations of the economic system.

However, some around the president may want to change the third and eighth paragraphs which govern federalism, the powers of the president, the Federal Asembly, the government, the judicial system and the organs of local self-administration. Slobodkin says he believes that boosting local administration may be behind the current drive.

But talking about changing the constitution will elicit more radical proposals, and the lawyer suggested that the creation of a Constitutional Council was intended “to block radical proposals which could lead to a [wholesale] revision of the Fundamental Law.” But even the changes it may allow could have radical consequences.

Thus, for example, the 1993 Constitution’s ban on a state ideology could be dropped so that Putin could articulate and promote a new one intended to unify the population.  Going much beyond that, however, he suggested, “could call forth a new wave of protests” which the authorities clearly do not need.

One Russian official has taken an even harder line against changes.  Vladimir Lukin, the country’s ombudsman, says that there ought to be “a length moratorium on changes” in the basic law.” Otherwise, he warns, “Russia will face chaos which is more terrible than any tyranny” (kommersant.ru/doc/2342466).

Article also appeared at http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2013/11/window-on-eurasia-changing-russian.html