Putin’s Constitutional Restructuring: how Russia’s face is changing

di Vincent Maresca
16 Aprile 2020

The year 2020 may usher not merely a new decade, but a new chapter in the history and destiny of the Russian people. In fact, on January 16, the Russian Duma approved legislation amending the Russian Constitution. Shortly after the passage of the bill, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and most of his Ministers resigned. Immediately following these turn of events, the Prime Minister’s post went to a former tax official named Mikhail Mishustin. Consequently, various opinionators on both side of the political spectrum began analyzing these new developments. It is noteworthy to mention that Voice of America, when it first reported on the new prime minister, published a tweet in which they erroneously added a picture of Russia’s Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, instead of Mishustin.

Although Voice of America eventually inserted the correct picture, the little mistake raises a serious question. Was it a blunder or part of a Russophobic stunt?

At the outset, Western liberal democratic commentators speculated that the move is an attempt by President Putin to cling to power beyond 2024 when his term ends. However, Russian conservatives hope to see that the constitutional reforms can align more with Russia’s traditional culture.

Notably, among the 500 papers submitted to the working group, there is a proposal by the by the Russian Orthodox Church to include God in the Constitution. As the Russian Duma discussed and debated those proposed amendments, President Putin also joined in the working group meetings.

One member of the group suggested a proposal to define the role of the family under two parents: a mother and father. Although President Putin questioned the wording of the clause especially since it “would violate the rights of families led by single parents,” he submitted on March 2 to the Russian Duma most of the proposed Constitutional amendments, such as the one invoking God and the one enshrining traditional marriage between man and woman. As of March 16, the proposed Constitutional amendments passed both houses of Parliament, supported by two-thirds of the Russian Federation’s regions, and approval by the Russian Constitutional Court. The amended Constitution will be voted in a national referendum, originally scheduled on April 22, but now Putin postponed it to a later date due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

From a libertarian-conservative perspective, supporters and sympathizers of constitutional law from both the United States and Russia should welcome these new initiatives. For instance, the wielding of power to the Russian Duma, both the lower and upper houses, will give more decision making in the hands of the legislature and in turn the people. President Putin acknowledged that the final amended Constitution would become “law only after the results of the all-Russia vote [and] citizens of Russia must be the authors of those amendments.”

Moreover, the proposed revising of the Constitution could signify a transition from the turmoil of the 90s. It is noteworthy that before this year’s events leading to the proposals of amendments to the Russian Constitution, Russia faced numerous crises especially during the Yeltsin years.

First, Russia, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, was facing an economic and social crisis starting in 1992 with the effects of Yegor Gaidar’s privatization policies, also known as shock therapy. Gaidar was Yeltsin’s handpicked Vice-minister in charge of economic policy. Although at the outset he brought a young and fresh outlook in the Russian government, his and Yeltsin’s propaganda campaign of privatizing various enterprises, which included the distribution of vouchers, led to runaway inflation and shortages of food supplies, as documented in the article by Russia Today.

Second, in 1993, Yeltsin’s government and Parliament were negotiating a new Constitution to replace the Soviet Constitution dated from the 1970s. At first all seemed to go well, but toward the middle of the year, negotiations broke down and the crisis culminated with Yeltsin ordering the siege of the Russian parliament. Contrasting with the current negotiations to amend the Russian Constitution, there does not appear to be any violent outburst, rather there was recently a peaceful protest led by supporters of Boris Nemtsov.

Third, following Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996, in which the Clinton administration had a degree of intervention, Russia again plunged into a crisis with the devaluation of the ruble due to the Russian government’s defaulting on its “short-term bonds.” The crisis gradually ended after 1998 when Yeltsin selected Vladimir Putin as his Prime Minister replacing his predecessors Sergey Kiriyenko, Yevgeny Primakov, and Sergei Stepashin. Under Putin’s administration, alongside a newly-elected Parliament in 1999, the “reformist” parliament and administration “reduced tax rates, overhauled the judicial system, legislated private ownership of land and adopted new banking laws.” Ever since, Russia’s economy improved as well as its standard of living with very little panics, bank runs or shortages of supplies.

The constitutional reforms may improve Russia’s standard of living in the long-run, which is something that the famed Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn echoed during his later years. Although Solzhenitsyn praised Putin for restoring Russia’s reputation as an important global power, the author also expressed concern for the economic divide in an interview with Der Spiegel saying:

“I think the gap between the rich and the poor is an extremely dangerous phenomenon in Russia and it needs the immediate attention of the state. Although many fortunes were amassed in Yeltsin’s times by ransacking, the only reasonable way to correct the situation today is not to go after big businesses — the present owners are trying to run them as effectively as they can — but to give breathing room to medium and small businesses. That means protecting citizens and small entrepreneurs from arbitrary rule and from corruption. It means investing the revenues from the national natural resources into the national infrastructure, education and health care. And we must learn to do so without shameful theft and embezzlement.”

Therefore, the Constitutional reforms may be a one-step toward a Russia envisioned by Solzhenitsyn; only time will tell.