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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 30, New Delhi, July 11, 2020

Russia’s Amendments to The Constitution - Official Version Vs Opposition Response | R.G.Gidadhbli

Saturday 11 July 2020

by R.G.Gidadhbli

On 3rd July Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that will bring into force a sweeping package of constitutional amendments that were approved overwhelmingly by Russians. According to Russia’s Central Election Commission, 65 pc of voters participated in the week long voting from 25th June to 1st July 2020 with 78 pc ballots approving the package of more than 200 amendments to the Russian Constitution. This is a significant political development in contemporary Russia and hence an effort has been made to highlight official version of amendment as also domestic opposition response since these amendments have also raised controversy and criticism both in Russia and in the West.

Official Version

Firstly, as per official version, few basic contents of the amendment are — they broaden the powers of the parliament in the formation of the government and redistribute some authority among various government structures, enable Putin to seek additional terms as president since under the current rules the president is forbidden from seeking a third consecutive six-year term. Moreover, amendments also explicitly state the priority of Russian law over international law, ban same-sex marriages, describe a “belief in God” as a core national value, define the Russian language as “the language of the state-forming ethnicity,” and make it “impossible to alienate parts of the Russian Federation.” The last amendment has great relevance considering the history of the breakup of the former Soviet Union since such provision was not there in the past. In the 1993 constitution it was mentioned that Russia is a secular state.

Secondly, on the 11th March 2020 the package of more than 200 amendments, which were discussed the previous day, were adopted by both lower house of parliament namely the State Duma and the upper chamber, the Federation Council adopting due process to put forth for voting.

Thirdly, Putin has asserted that the proposed constitutional changes would help "reinforce" Russia’s traditional "values and principles." Moreover, according to official sources the amendments are necessary for the country’s stability and security considering the fact that Russia is the largest country in the world with diverse ethnic communities speaking different languages. Hence some parts of the amendment have great relevance since during the last over two decades Russia has passed through conflict of interests by some regional groups for the breakup of Russia.

Fourthly, as expected percentage of voting varied from place to place - 66 pc in Moscow and 62 pc in St. Petersburg. In few areas such as Chechnya, Siberian region of Tyva 97 pc of voters were in favor of amendments. In contrast to that Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Yakutia, Kamchatka in the Far Eastern region of Russia are some of the regions where a large section of people voted against amendment to the constitution, which was unofficially brushed off by the Kremlin as reported by Interfax news agency. It is surprising that there was no minimum turnout required to make the process of voting valid and voters were given the option of accepting or rejecting the entire package of amendments. Hence as rightly opined by some analysts, the result was seen by many as a foregone conclusion and copies of the new constitution were already on sale in bookshops weeks ahead of the ballot. Dmitry Peskov spokesperson of Kremlin and State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin have stated that high turnout and high level of support to an amendment to the constitution was an indication of Putin’s popularity.

Fifth, it is important to note that Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova told Interfax on 2nd July that balloting had been transparent and that officials had done everything to ensure its integrity and hence the results "speak to the accuracy of the vote count." By calling it ‘nationwide vote’ there was no stringent requirement of minimum turnout to make it legal.

Opposition Response

There is considerable criticism to this amendment of the Constitution by the opposition and analysts. Firstly, as expected some sections of opposition leaders have not supported the amendment. For instance, the Communist Party of Russia had called for a “no” vote campaign, the Yabloko party called for a boycott of the plebiscite and others including prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny said he would "never recognize this result". Some opposition leaders have alleged that high turnout and support reflected in official results were engineered to confirm with targets set down well in advance by the government. As reported by some media reports, on 10th March the wording that would allow Vladimir Putin to seek reelection in 2024 and 2030 was abruptly added when Duma was to give consent for amendments of the Constitution, by which it might be contended that this was done under pressure.

Secondly, Putin’s critics charge and insist that the Constitutional amendments are a bid for the 67-year-old Putin to secure power beyond 2024 when his present term will be over. There were several protest marches by activists in Red Square in Moscow and in a few cities before and during the week of voting. But not caring for the protests to show his strength and determination, Vladimir Putin after casting his vote in Moscow stated that he might take part in 2024 presidential election

Thirdly, sweeping constitutional reforms have sparked sharp criticism from opposition members and human rights groups. There are critics who contend that Putin has weakened democratic institutions, marginalized political opponents and stifled criticism. According to Levada Center polling agency Putin’s popularity rate has sank to 59 percent as voting was taking place amid growing discontent in Russia. As opined by Irina Borogan, an investigative journalist “After the vote for the Constitution amendments Russia became China politically, and we lost all the legacy of the new democracy that had emerged in 1991.” Notwithstanding that Putin’s supporters give him credit for strengthening the country and its economy after the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the crises in the 1990s and make remerge as a major power.

Fourthly, contrary to the contention of the Election Commission, there were reports of irregularities at some polling stations such as double voting, violation of secrecy and intimidation of activists and journalists seeking to monitor the vote. It was reported that two police officers broke a journalist’s arm at a polling station on 30th June in St. Petersburg who was on his duty for independent outlet Mediazona which has hit media headlines.

 In fact there were different types of irregularities and as reported by Russia analyst from Europe Matthew Luxmoore on 28th June, a Russian woman living in Israel reported that she had been able to vote three times, in Tel Aviv, in Haifa, and again online. At one Moscow polling station, when a man came for casting his vote, he was told that he and his entire family had already cast their votes despite none of them had. In view of all such information, the European Union has called on Russia to probe reports of irregularities.

 Fifthly, the EU has also criticized an amendment of the reform that gave Russian law primacy over its international

commitments, which defied the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, of which Moscow is a signatory. The EU spokesman Stano has made a candid statement "We expect Russia, regardless of any amendments to this constitution, to live up to its international obligations". Equally important is the fact that ethnic minorities have expressed concern that the new constitutional wording granting the Russian language special status will lead to the further marginalization of indigenous tongues.

Sixth, the issue arises as to what was the need for amendment to the constitution. In this regard in the past on more than one occasion Putin himself had stated that he will not change the Constitution adopted in 1993. In fact Moscow-based political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann has recalled that Putin, who as recently as 2018 proudly emphasized that he had never altered the constitution. But on 15th Jan 2020 Putin made an announcement about proposed constitutional changes in a state-of-the-nation speech.

Seventh, as per the present Constitution, Putin who has been in power as president for two terms cannot contest election in 2024. But one amendment to the Constitution resets Putin’s term-limit clock to zero opening the way for him to run for presidency for reelection when his current six-year term expires in 2024 and that he can contest in 2030 to remain in power till 2036. In view of this William Pomeranz, who is an expert on Russian law and deputy director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington has opined "The retention of power, as opposed to any far-off historical legacy, appears to be the driving force."

In lieu of conclusion it may be stated that considering the fact that Russia has been passing through several domestic, regional and global socio-economic and political developments and problems during the last nearly three decades, amendments to the constitution were necessary and desirable. The Russian president Vladimir Putin with his vision and valor has enabled Russia to remain secure and stable and re-emerge as a major power in the world. Hence even as some aspects of criticism raised by the EU are relevant, over emphasis by opposition leaders only one element of the amendment to the constitution may not be justifiable.

DR R.G.Gidadhbli is Professor and Former Director, Center For Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, Mumbai

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