Author: Irina KHALTURINA
On June 25-July 1, Russian citizens voted to update the constitution of the country. With a turnout of 67.97%, the amendments were supported by the majority of Russian population: 77.92% or almost 58 million citizens.
Interestingly, both national and foreign media outlets covered the referendum on constitutional amendments from different angles. For example, most of the Russian media outlets focused on explaining how the amendments are supposed to modify the public administration system and contribute to the well-being of people through state institutions, accentuating the socially oriented state policy. In the foreign media, the focus is on resetting to zero the presidential term of Vladimir Putin, with all the consequences of this act for Russia and the international community.
Remarkably, the need for a nationwide vote has become proverbial in the Russian information space from the very beginning of discussions on amendments. It has been repeatedly voiced, though without any legal provision supporting such statements whatsoever, that the draft amendments had been written not only by lawyers, but also by public figures, journalists, entrepreneurs, actors, doctors, athletes, writers, and scientists. There was an indirect but explicit reference to popular assemblies – the analogues of Zemsky Sobors summoned in the Tsardom of Russia, which are still the source of pride for Russians. Given the text of some amendments, there is, undoubtedly, a special meaning beneath.
A number of Russian officials underline that the updated constitution "raises the quality of the entire system of public power in the country to a new level." They believe that it will, by and large, strengthen the Russian sovereignty, providing constitutional protection of basic values and real social rights of citizens. Mr. Putin said that the amendments "will strengthen the nationhood and create conditions for the progressive development of [Russia] for decades to come." According to the president, the results of the popular vote showed a high level of social consolidation on key issues.
According to the most significant changes to the Russian constitution, Russian laws now have a priority over international legislation and the state will have to adjust pensions to inflation not less than once in a year. Also, the document explicitly mentions God, Russians as the state-forming nation, marriage as a union of a man and woman; recognises children as a top priority of state policy, bans diminishing the significance of the people’s heroism in defending the Fatherland. Among the amendments concerning the political system and government, the State Duma will have the right to approve ministers and deputy prime ministers. And the president, in turn, will have the right to dissolve the Duma. Former presidents will have a lifetime right to serve as senators, while the prime minister will be held “personally accountable” to the president.
The amendments will be reflected in the budget, federal programs and national projects. Apparently, some of these changes are quite clear, though the others can be debated for hours.
Reset to zero
Undoubtedly, one of such debatable changes concerns the revocation of constitutional limit on the number of presidential terms, which allows Mr. Putin to remain in the office up until 2036. Therefore, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the results of the referendum "a de facto triumphant vote of confidence in President Putin."
The Kremlin has repeatedly assured that the constitutional reform will not affect the presidential term. However, in March 2020, Vladimir Putin announced his consent to resetting his term to zero. Immediately after that, the Russian society split into those who supported the constitutional amendments in entirety and those who viewed the changes as just a way to solve the main issue – the so-called ‘Problem-2024’. In any case, Putin received a legitimate right to be re-elected again.
It is important to note that the word “подряд” (in a row) is removed from the article regulating the maximum number of presidential terms, which means that Putin's successor cannot be elected more than twice. Will Putin use his constitutional right or will he decide on a successor? After all, there are numerous theories claiming that Putin may leave his post before 2024 to become the head of the State Council or the head of the strengthened Security Council of the Russian Federation. Incidentally, the State Council is becoming a body that will determine the "directions of national and foreign policy" and "the socio-economic development of the state". Perhaps, it will also move to St. Petersburg as its new permanent residence.
However, there is no real figure who could replace Putin, at least now, although there are plenty of candidates from Sergey Shoigu to Sergey Sobyanin. It is also speculated that a completely ‘fresh’ person will replace Putin. On the other hand, there is not a politician, who would be popular but not supported by Putin either. The parliamentary opposition has long been attached to the Kremlin, while the most prominent non-systemic oppositionist, Alexei Navalny, is more popular in the West than in Russia. Anyway, there is still plenty of time for shuffling the options. But it is clear that Mr. Putin definitely holds the key to the riddle of ‘Problem-2024’ in his hands.
Against international laws
Among other constitutional amendments that caused a violent reaction in the West was the granting of the right to the Constitutional Court of Russia to block the decisions of international organisations. One of such cases, for example, is the verdict of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, which prescribed the Kremlin to pay $50 billion to the former shareholders of Yukos. The advisory body of the Council of Europe stated, albeit quite expectedly, that this contradicts the obligations that Russia assumed by ratifying the European Convention on Human Rights, which meant Russia’s voluntary submission to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. For example, pursuant to the second chapter of the Russian constitution, the human rights and freedoms are recognised and guaranteed "in accordance with generally recognised principles and norms of international law."
The effect of this change on Russia's international image is not clear yet. After all, a growing number of states continue to neglect the binding international treaties – a trend that has not been set by Russia at all. Therefore, on the one hand, it looks like Moscow is violating the established norms. On the other hand, the latest global events show that the international norms established after the World War II have long been suffering from disintegration and revision. In this context, the Russian Federation does not violate anything. Rather, it simply a reaction to the ongoing process. By the way, it is possible to consider the newly amended article of the Russian constitution, which prohibits actions "aimed at alienating part of the territory of the Russian Federation", in the same context.
Foreign observers are also worried about the amendments concerning the definition of marriage as a union of a man and woman, as well as the preservation of traditional family values. According to some experts, such a wording may well be interpreted as the discrimination of women, sexual minorities, etc. A number of European and American media outlets vehemently criticise the amendment on the status of children as the most important priority of the Russian state policy. In particular, they mention a lack of clarity about the possible meaning of the definition. There are fears that the so-called ‘state upbringing of children’ may supersede upbringing by the family. Paradoxically, this very clause – that the state can meddle with the way the children are mentored in families – is often cited by the Russian-speaking users of the Web as one of the most solid anti-Western arguments.
The explicit mentioning of God in the Russian constitution also provoked some serious debates, as to whether it contradicts the provision on the secular nature of the Russian state. Indeed, it is the first time the name of God appears in the Russian constitution but similar clauses can still be found in the constitutions of many other countries. Moreover, some states declare the trust in God even on their banknotes.
No matter how serious and furious the critical statements of the Western politicians and experts are, the Kremlin’s response was straightforward: it did not ask the opinion of international bodies, since making the amendments is an internal affair of the country. Local media outlets report that the Commission of the Federation Council for the Protection of State Sovereignty together with the experts and interested parties intends to prepare by October 1 a batch of amendments to the existing legislation to protect the Russian Federation from external interference.
Yet why the amendments to the Russian constitution were adopted amid the coronavirus pandemic and the falling oil prices? Why did not the Kremlin wait for the situation to normalise but decided to change the constitution at such a difficult time? Perhaps Moscow did not postpone the referendum precisely because of the consequences of the above events, which made the Russian economy, hence the entire position of the country, very vulnerable. Hence the accent of amendments on social guarantees and the strengthening of sovereignty. In other words, the state governance system is being accelerated.
But Covid-19 is a stress test with no predictable end not only of Russia but the whole world. That is why it is difficult to forecast the flow of global events and their effects on Russia. By the way, the elections to the State Duma are planned for the next year, and the state authorities are preparing for them.
With the adoption of the updated constitution, Russia steps onto a new stage of its history. The country is at the very beginning of the path full of new challenges and goals. In other words, the amendments set the form of future changes, while their content and ‘personal details’ will most likely be determined within the next few years.