"I truly believe that it is time to introduce certain changes to our country's main law." -Vladimir Putin, January 2020
On January 15, 2020, the Russian Government headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned en masse, immediately after the State of the Union address. Within six hours of Medvedev’s resignation, Putin offered the post to Mikhail Mishutshin who had formerly been the head of the Russian Tax Service. It is of significance that the governmental revamp has been preceded by a proposed nationwide referendum on constitutional changes which will ensure the shift of the balance of power from Putin’s successor (the future Russian President) to the Parliament and the newly-appointed Prime Minister, even though Putin has limited the term of the Russian President to two terms. All 432 legislators in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, have approved of the amendments.
According to the amendments, 14 articles of the Constitution are to be changed. The State Duma will possess the right to approve a Prime Minister’s candidacy, followed by that of the Deputy Prime Ministers and Federal Ministers. A prospective Presidential candidate has to be an inhabitant of Russia for a minimum of 25 years (earlier it was 10 years). The upper house of the Russian Parliament, the Federation Council, will be able to send a proposal to the President to dismiss Federal Judges. This is an elevation of the Council’s importance, whose significance was previously restricted to being an advisory body. The President will appoint the superior officers of the law enforcement agencies only in consultation with the Federal Council. The individuals who hold important positions for ensuring the country’s security (President, Ministers, Heads of Regions) are forbidden from holding foreign citizenship or residence permits of other nations during their term in office. The Constitutional Court has the competence to ensure the constitutionality of laws which the Parliament of the Russian Federation adopts, by the request of the President, before him signing it.
That apart, one of the important parts of the amendment includes a clear statement of the priority of the Russian Constitution over international law and the global human rights regime, which many believe is a reflection of Kremlin’s annoyance with the European Court of Human Rights’ declarations that Russia is responsible for gross human rights violations, including the Chechnya disappearances, and the Court’s rulings against Russia’s Federal Security Services in 2015.
The otherwise innocuous amendments tend to have latent implications for Russia, in particular, and international politics in general. A cursory analysis reveals that there shall be a surge in the importance of the country’s Parliament: both the upper and lower house. The President’s candidature for the post of Prime Minister would require a formal confirmation from the Duma. The actual centre of power shall shift to the State Council which is being vested with a heightened legal authority. Many believe that it is the future landing gateway for Putin, post-2024, as it will ensure that he retains ultimate power post-retirement from the Presidency.
The amendments will bestow the Security Council (headed by Putin, it includes the heads of the lower and upper house of parliament, the President’s envoys in Federal Districts and regional Governors) with the status of an official state organ that shall chart the domestic and foreign policies of the Russian Federation. There is an opportunity of the Security Council receiving executive authority that it previously hasn’t possessed. Putin may continue to manipulate foreign and domestic affairs through his pivotal role in this Security Council, in spite of not retaining his presidential post within 4 years.
The present amendments may be compared to that of the Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarvaev, who formally stepped down from the post of the President last March but continued to enjoy hegemony over the decision-making hierarchy of the nation by capturing important positions in the Security Council whose authority had been strategically heightened before Nazarnaev’s ascendancy. Hints of such parallels find resonance in the words of Pavel Krasheninnikov, Chairman of a Duma committee telling the official Government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, “Scores of proposals have been received including one to create an official post of Supreme Leader.”
As of February, 2020, one may state that the unanimous support of the Duma to the constitutional amendments bill is reminiscent of the Soviet vote on Stalin’s adoption of the December, 1936 Constitution or Brezhnev’s 1977 Doctrine. A national plebiscite on the amendments is due in April and planning for it has already been initiated by the Central Election Commission. However, the opposition aims at converting the plebiscite into a no-confidence vote of the ruling regime. More than 40,000 people have signed a manuscript urging the Russian public to blatantly reject the “constitutional coup d’etat”. Meanwhile, the fate of Russia swerves in the uncertainty of major constitutional upheaval.
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