Russia’s Constitutional Amendments Keep Several Futures Open for Putin
(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – Marlene Laruelle – June 25, 2020)
Marlene Laruelle is the director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and a research professor of international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
On July 1, Russian citizens will be voting to approve amendments to the 1993 constitution, proposed by Vladimir Putin in January, planned for a vote in April and postponed to the summer as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. If adopted, the main change will be to allow Putin to stay in power after the end of his second consecutive—and fourth total—mandate, possibly up to 2036, when he is going to be 84 years old. This “president for life” perspective was widely criticized in the West, as well as by some in Russia. Yet, it remains just one option among many: the Russian president could also use that long horizon to hand off power to someone else without becoming a lame duck.
The strategy here is to keep Putin’s portfolio of possibilities as wide as possible. And the same applies for the whole country. The amendments underline a multiplicity of futures for Russia: they may pave the way for a more democratic regime or close it; they promote an agenda of conservative values, but at the same time still resist the most reactionary forces. What is certain is that the constitutional amendments aim at reinforcing Russia’s sovereignty-or isolation, depending on how one wants to interpret it-from the international scene and the country’s self-reliance.
Contradictory Signals of Political Transformation
That the Russian regime in its current form needs to be transformed in order to remain legitimate is recognized by most political actors, but such transformation is systematically postponed to an indeterminate “after”-namely, after Putin. And, indeed, the list of amendments to the constitution sends mixed messages regarding future political transformations: it marks a potential strengthening of representative institutions while at the same time reinforcing the “vertical of power.”
For instance, the amendments provide for reducing the authority of the presidency in favor of the parliament. The State Duma, the lower and more powerful chamber, would gain a greater say in the formation of the government and be able to refuse the president’s candidate for prime minister. The president would also lose the ability to reject candidates for cabinet decided by the prime minister, who would need to secure parliamentary confirmation. The Council of the Federation, the upper house, would be consulted for the choice of candidates for key security posts, such as the post of defense minister. And the presidency would be limited to two terms, even if they are not consecutive-after Putin, of course. This series of amendments thus paints a long-awaited institutionalization of the regime, paving the way toward a less presidential and more parliamentary system, at least on paper, and therefore a regime that can better recognize the plurality of political opinions.
However, other amendments consolidate the famous “vertical of power” and accentuate the centralization of decision-making. The so far purely ceremonial and advisory State Council would be entirely reshaped under these amendments. Under the president’s leadership, it would be endowed with important powers, such as “setting main directions” for Russia’s domestic and foreign policies. As a result, in my view, the government would find itself reduced to technocratic management of applied policies. This State Council would parallel the government without any representation or accountability.
Many have seen in the creation of this empowered State Council a tailor-made institution for Putin in the event that he leaves the presidency but wishes to retain control over the country’s future—quite similar to what Nursultan Nazarbayev designed for himself in Kazakhstan. As head of the Security Council, Nazarbayev can also unilaterally appoint most cabinet ministers, heads of various security forces and regional governors.
Moreover, the plan to inscribe into the constitution the immunity of all former presidents of Russia—so far based on a federal law from 2001—also appears as a self-serving move for Putin: in case he vacates his seat of power, or is forced to do so, this new amendment would protect him from being prosecuted for the many supposed corruption and embezzlement cases.
How is one to read such contradictory amendments? Paradoxes, no doubt, constitute one of the driving forces of the regime’s longevity. Far from being an immobile structure, the regime continues to show an impressive capacity to adapt to new contexts and take on new and challenging geopolitical environments. It remains a flexible, ad hoc construction that can move in different directions: it bends, but does not break-a metaphor often used in Asian martial arts, and something that Putin, as an aficionado of judo, has been putting into practice as head of state. The amendments open two different futures for Russia: one that is more parliamentary and therefore potentially more plural; and one that is more centralized, and so, one can assume, is likely to be operated by security agencies.
Engraving Conservative Values in the Text … but Keeping Flexibility
Certain amendments also hope to inscribe into the constitution a new form of state ideology, organized around three key pillars: religion, patriotism and nationalism. This trinity seems reminiscent of the official doctrine of the Russian Empire under Nicholas I (1825–55): “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality.”
As far as religion is concerned, the amendments propose to mention God (“safeguarding the memory of forefathers who passed on their ideals and faith in God”), allow only opposite-sex marriages and insist on family values. As for patriotism, the amendments plan to strengthen the patriotic education of children, to protect the memory of the Great Patriotic War (Russia “cherishes the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland and secures the defense of historical truth”) and to recognize Russia as the legal heir of the Soviet Union. And with regard to nationalism, the amendments evoke the “Russian language as the language of the state-constitutive people, part of the multinational union of equal peoples of the Russian Federation.” This statement confirms the superiority of the Russian language over languages of the national republics (the Russian government had already abolished the compulsory teaching of national languages at school, igniting tensions, especially in Tatarstan). But it also formulates for the first time a form of primus inter pares status for ethnic Russians, implicitly mentioned as the “state-constitutive people.”
Yet, unlike under Nicholas I, this ideological trinity constitutes anything but a rigid doctrine: its formulation itself remains evasive and deliberately ambiguous.
For example, God would be mentioned in the constitution, but the Russian Orthodox Church would not be recognized as a state religion. The evocation of God, vocally supported by the Moscow Patriarchate, was equally embraced by the Muslim Spiritual Boards—particularly happy to see the ban on gay marriage enshrined in law (see below)—on the condition that the church would not strengthen its already well-deployed powers. The secularity of the state would not be denied either, as the amendment relates to the “memory of forefathers,” not to today’s state institutions: the religiosity of the society does not contradict the secularity of the state.
The recognition of Russia as the legal heir of the Soviet Union only confirms what has been Moscow’s legal stance for three decades. Already in 2010, in the middle of the memory wars with the Baltic states and Poland, Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev proposed to recognize that the Russian Federation, as the USSR’s successor state, is to fulfill all of its international obligations, but does not recognize any moral responsibility or legal obligation for crimes committed by Soviet authorities. The new amendments do not go further. Cherishing children’s patriotic education, as well as the memory of the Second World War, belongs to the most usual tropes of Russian political language and has already been systematized in the many iterations of the State Programs for Patriotic Education since 2001.
As for the Russian language, it is cited as a euphemism for the notion of “Russian people” (russkii narod), which would generate a lot of polemics within the ethnic republics. Evoking the Russian people would also be difficult to defend legally, as Russia is a federation with clearly identified minorities but an implicit majority, and has systematically played with ambiguities in defining the Russian nation. Insisting on the language and not on the nation thus satisfies all sides. To cultivate a crucial ambiguity in terminology, some MPs even declared that the text does not evoke the ethnic Russian people (russkii narod) but the civic nation of all Russians (rossiiskii narod), in order to calm tensions with ethnic republics.
Of the conservative values that are to be engraved into the new constitution, only opposite-sex marriage appears to be formulated in a manner so straightforward that it will, indeed, forbid gay marriage at the highest legal level. This is an easy move to make, as Russian public opinion remains largely homophobic, even if the number of such opinions is now decreasing.
Regarding all other aspects of the “Religion, Patriotism, Nationalism” doctrine, one may notice the plasticity of the formulations used. The regime likes to position itself as a moderate force: it supports an agenda of conservative values, but refuses radical formulations that would empower the Church or nationalist forces too much. It also tries to avoid as much as possible anything that would be legally binding on divisive topics-religion and nationalism-and agrees on those for which the consensus is already secured-patriotism, World War II narratives and the outlawing of homosexuality.
Reaffirming Russia’s Sovereignty
On some other aspects, the amendments are less diffident. For instance, two other important additions to the constitution are directly linked to reinforcing Russia’s sovereignty against the so-called liberal world order.
First, the amendments would give precedence to Russian law over international treaties and obligations. However, as the current constitution already secures that legal priority, the amendment seems mostly symbolic, a signal sent to the international justice system. Moscow already withdrew its signature from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2016 and regularly threatens to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and potentially the European Council itself. As Ukraine has brought forth proceedings against Russia before the International Court of Justice and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (for tensions in the Black Sea), Moscow wants to express as vocally as possible that it is not bound by international law if such law weighs against what it sees as its national interests.
Second, the revised constitution would forbid any action in favor of the “separation of a territory” (otchuzhdenie territorii), including calls for separatism. While Russia does not face any further risks of territorial dismemberment, as it did in the 1990s, the amendment clearly targets, without naming it, Crimea-as well as, potentially, Kaliningrad and the Kuril Islands. Thus, any action and even any call for Crimea to reintegrate into Ukraine would be legally at odds with the constitution-a move whose hope is to make the annexation definitive and irreversible.
Related to the emphasis on sovereignty, another series of amendments aim at pressuring the Russian political establishment’s links with abroad by highlighting dual citizenship. Presidential candidates, members of governments, the Duma, the Federation Council, heads of federal bodies and judges would be forbidden from acquiring a second citizenship. Presidential candidates would be required to have never possessed a second citizenship or resident permit, which would ban any resident from Crimea for running for presidency, since most of these residents were Ukrainian citizens before the annexation.
The goal of these amendments is to coerce the political elite and ensure its loyalty to the regime by challenging their instrumental use of secondary citizenships as safety nets in the event that they fall out of grace. Numbers are unknown, but many in the establishment indeed hold Israeli or European citizenships. This move followed the decision, passed in April by the Duma, to allow dual citizenship for Russian citizens and simplify the acquisition procedure of Russian citizenship, with the hope of gaining several million new citizens in the “near abroad” and of potentially using this passportization as leverage against recalcitrant neighbors.
At Stake: The Social Contract Between State and Society
Among all the measures announced by the amendments, the social package is the key selling point to the wider population. The obligation of the state to take charge of several social provisions, including regularly indexing pensions and social benefits to inflation, and guaranteeing a minimal wage at or above the poverty line, have been widely publicized for the purpose of ensuring popular support for the constitutional reform. Yet, they remain modest and target the poorest, those who are most dependent on state subsidies.
And indeed, for years, the social contract between the Russian state and its citizens was founded on increasing standards of living in exchange for support for the regime and for citizens’ non-involvement in politics. Since 2014, a period which has witnessed both the oil price collapse and the impact of the sanctions that followed Crimea’s annexation and support for the war in Donbass, the social contract has evolved: it is no longer about increasing the quality of life but is, instead, about maintaining what has been acquired thus far.
The current recession resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will likely make that promise more difficult to keep. So far, the economic package offered to the private sector confronted by the lockdown has been minimal, as the government resists pressure to spend. It allocated some new social benefits to families with children, the unemployed, some bonuses for medical personnel, as well as different levels of moratorium on loans and utilities payments. But the government could offer greater support than the planned 300 billion rubles if it needed to do so. Thanks to its fiscal conservatism and about $560 billion in international reserves, Moscow can afford some debts in order to keep its economy afloat. However, the social provisions announced in the amendments touch mostly the poorest classes and retirees, showing that the regime has lost hope in satisfying the urban middle classes.
It is unlikely that the constitutional amendments will not be validated by the upcoming “referendum.” In early June, Levada Center polls showed 44 percent support for the amendments, while 32 percent of respondents said they did not support the changes. On June 23, the day before the postponed celebration of Victory Day, another sociological center, VTsIOM, forecast between 67 and 71 percent support for the amendments.
But for the regime, the key issue will be the level of participation (the constitution does not require such a popular vote). So far both VTsIOM and the Levada Center estimate participation will be quite high, at around 66-67 percent. To foster popular support, the president himself addressed the nation for almost one hour, explaining the constitutional changes and the need for citizens to vote. Putin’s own legitimacy is indeed at stake at a time when the population is increasingly critical of its political elite and anxious about its economic stability. Trust in the president is particularly low. When asked which five to six Russian politicians they trust, only 25 percent of respondents to a Levada Center poll mentioned Putin (compared to 60 percent in 2017, and more than 80 percent in 2014-15). Additionally, more than a quarter of citizens are ready to protest.
The revised constitution will likely have no tangible repercussions on Russia’s foreign policy, only reinforcing already existing trends by inscribing them into the country’s highest law. Traditional values, patriotism, religion, sovereignty/isolation, centralization-all the ideological grammar of Putin’s regime finds itself consolidated. Devoting state subsidies to support the poorest, considered to be the silent majority supporting Putin, has also become one of the driving socioeconomic strategies of the authorities over the last several years, all the while neglecting the urban middle classes, who are considered a lost cause for the regime. Only the political transformations, either in favor of a more parliamentary regime or a fortified power vertical through the State Council, propose some institutional innovations, leaving Russia’s post-Putin future largely open.
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