In 1993, Russia literally had to fight to adopt its new constitution. In October that year, the then president Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to shell the White House in Moscow (seat of then Supreme Soviet, now of the Russian government), where plotters were hoping to restore the Soviet Union and roll back democratic reforms. In 2020, no show of force was required to amend the constitution (if we are to ignore the military parade on the Red Square on the eve of the seven-day-long referendum), and yet the consequences of this move for both Russia and its neighbours might be even more drastic than those 30 years ago.
Modern Problems Require Not-So-Modern Solutions
The controversial amendments to Russia’s constitution, approved on an equally controversial popular vote by 77% majority, entered into force on July 4. De facto, they make Vladimir Putin the life-long president with hardly any constitutional counterweights to even theoretically keep him in check, both domestically and in foreign affairs. This is bad news for Russia and for Europe in general. All those who were still hoping that Russia might be on a path to democracy (admittedly a very long one), have been finally disillusioned. The new constitution reinforces an autocratic nature of the state, which has effectively been in place for several years already, with the president as ultimate decision-maker and distributor of public goods across the whole spectrum of society.
Paradoxically, unlike in 1993, when the head of state desperately needed to consolidate his power in the face of the myriad of internal problems, current realities in the country hardly begged for this “solution”. Back then, the Kremlin was fighting leechlike separatism, which bled the state budget dry and could possibly have led to further disintegration of the still nuclear-weapon state. Today, however, the allegiance of local elites is beyond doubt and economic reserves are brimming. But instead of carrying out necessary political and economic reforms that could bring the country to the fore in the XXI century, the leadership decided to adopt a new constitution.
A quarter of a century later since the original constitution was adopted, Russia no longer faces such dangerous internal problems , but in the Kremlin’s eyes external adversaries appear to abound. Allegedly, they try to alienate Russia’s lands (Amendment to Art. 66 which now “forbids giving up part of territory” to other countries), undermine its societal foundations (Amendment to Art. 72 which now defines marriage as “union between a man and a woman”) and belittle its historic achievements (Amendment to Art. 67 which requires preserving collective memory of the victory in the Great Patriotic War). These changes may have originally resonated with the public, but most of them were quickly forgotten, when Putin announced that he would endorse the amendment allowing him to run for two additional terms. With this, the whole “popular vote” debate has been reduced to the question whether he is the right person to lead the country through the next decades.
Is it All about Putin Only?
Even though there remains little doubt as to what exactly the whole operation was about, there are still some significant constitutional changes (206 in total) that should not be overlooked. Apart from giving the current president an opportunity to run for two additional terms, the new constitution also skews the constitutional balance towards additional centralisation, moving power from the regions to Moscow and from the Parliament and courts to the President.
One of the major features of the new Russian political system is now an even stronger head of state, who from now on gets more responsibilities in practically all domains of power. The president has more leverage over the government, as he or she from now on “gives directions” to it, while the Prime Minister merely “organises” its work (Art. 83). The constitution now also gives the president the right to become a life-long member of the Federation Council (upper chamber of the Parliament) after retirement. In short, speculations that the political system might actually become less “vertical”, thanks to the new bodies like the State Council, proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking.
Another feature of the updated constitution is the supremacy of the Russian law over international law, even though the factual “prevalence” of the latter officially remains intact (Art. 15). Additionally, all judges to the Supreme and Constitutional courts from now on will be appointed and removed directly by presidential decree. This will ensure that the formality of the supremacy of international law remains merely a lip service, in line with the fact that Russia already practically ignores the rulings of the European Human Rights Courts, which can interpreted as up to now 75 percent of its decisions are pending in Russian courts.
The independence of local and municipal authorities vis-à-vis the federal centre is even further marginalised since the new constitution gives Moscow the official right to appoint and remove even more local officials. The domains that used to be under the purview of the subjects of the Russian Federation (e.g. youth and sport politics) are now transferred to the centre. This epitomises the absence of trust towards local initiatives and will even further deteriorate already poor relations between the regions and Moscow.
Constitutional Implications for Russia’s Foreign Policy Behaviour
As far as foreign policy is concerned, the constitution now includes passages requiring “supporting compatriots abroad in carrying out their rights and defending their interests” (Art. 69). It also further strengthens presidential powers in the domain of international politics (now directly appointing Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Ministers of Defence and others). As such, these steps do not indicate any immediate changes that might affect Russia’s behaviour in the international arena, but the general trend towards overall centralisation does not promise anything good in the foreseeable future, since the president effectively controls foreign affairs, leaving little room for pragmatic depoliticised dialogue.
The Russian position in military conflicts on its periphery, as well as in other regions, is likely to remain intact. Proposals of Emmanuel Macron to involve Russia in an all-European security architecture are thus also likely to be short-lived. At most, this step can be used for media stunts, but it’s practically certain not to yield any positive results. The EU won’t give up its positions on Ukraine or sanction policy without similar compromises on the Russian side and with Vladimir Putin in the president’s chair, there should be no illusions that that the latter is feasible.
Even though Putin’s popularity rate continues to hit record lows, and estimations of the real support for the amendments put it around 30%, the disorganised Russian opposition is years away from incentivising the leadership to abandon its unproductive foreign policy. In recent years, it has only contributed to an extreme deterioration of relations with almost all of its strategic partners and does little to mend it. Whether this has been the plan all along remains unclear, but the regime seems to have learned how to reap benefits from the current situation in which it portrays negative attitudes of Western countries vis-à-vis Russia as a sign of respect and recognition.
The new Russian constitution does not promise anything good, neither in terms of democracy promotion, nor in making the country’s foreign policy more cooperative towards the West. Most worryingly, the creeping authoritarianism in Putin’s Russia makes it extremely unreliable and unpredictable as an international partner. The unrestricted centralisation of authority and resources is particularly dangerous, due to the fact that the ultimate decision-maker seems to have genuinely become entrenched in a “besieged fortress mentality”, which, in his opinion, must be defended by all means possible, including by undermining the legal fundaments of the state.