Putin’s Constitutional Autocracy

Recent amendments to Russia’s constitution reflect the political and economic changes that have taken place during President Vladimir Putin’s 20-year rule. Above all, they abolish the fundamental constitutional principle of power rotation, and fix the institutional framework of what is now a mature authoritarian state.

Andrei Kolesnikov

MOSCOW – Earlier this year, Russian lawmakers and voters approved amendments to the country’s constitution that would allow President Vladimir Putin to reset the term limits of his office and prolong his rule until 2036. 

Even if he decides not to exercise this option, a proposed law that would greatly expand former Russian presidents’ criminal immunity will protect him from prosecution. 

Other constitutional amendments establish the primacy of Russian law over international law, define marriage as the union between a man and a woman, and protect official historical discourse from falsifications.

What do these changes tell us about the state of Russian statehood?

Countries change their constitutions when they undergo significant social and political transformations. For example, post-war Europe witnessed a wave of new basic laws, such as the 1946 French constitution and the 1949 West German Grundgesetz. 

Subsequent political upheavals, such as the Algerian crisis, led to a new French constitution and the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and in the 1970s, Greece, Portugal, and Spain introduced new constitutions after getting rid of military dictatorships.

The Soviet Union’s 1936 constitution consolidated the establishment of Stalinist totalitarianism, and served the same purpose as Stalinist architecture – to be a lush, decorative façade. As Boris Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago, it was a constitution not designed for use. But, as in the cases above, it reflected and codified recent political and social changes.

It was the same story with the 1977 “Brezhnev Constitution” (the first version of which had been drafted in 1973), although Nikita Khrushchev had wanted to record the results of his own rule in a constitution in the early 1960s.

Similarly, the 1993 Yeltsin Constitution recorded the changes stemming from the October Crisis. This constitution was – in strictly Leninist terms – a reflection of the “real correlation of forces in the class struggle,” with the liberals supporting Yeltsin and his use of armed force to dissolve the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation (then a parliamentary-type body). It also came to shape the reality of Russian statehood. But the fact that the 1993 constitution created a presidential republic did not imply that Russia’s political system would inevitably tilt in an authoritarian direction.

Some insist that political institutions borrowed from the West do not work in Russia. But after 1993, Russia had a real parliament that the president and the government had to take into consideration, as well as real elections. Moreover, the Russian people were absolutely ready for democracy and took advantage of it, including by exercising their newfound human and civil rights and freedoms under Chapter 2 of the constitution.

But Putin subsequently turned the Yeltsin Constitution into mere window dressing. In this, he was assisted by the politicized Constitutional Court, whose chairman, the ideologically simpatico Valery Zorkin, contributed to the quasi-legal basis of Russia’s transformation into an authoritarian state. 

The birth pangs of Russian democracy and the Yeltsin Constitution’s presidentialism do not explain why the Putin regime evolved as it did and ignored key constitutional provisions, including Article 31 on the right to assembly (one of the constitutional rights most often violated today).

With his recent constitutional amendments, Putin has memorialized the political and economic changes that have taken place during his 20-year rule, while clarifying his own future prospects. The presidential term reset abolished the fundamental constitutional principle of power rotation, and other constitutional amendments fixed the ideological framework of what is now a mature authoritarian state.

As a result, within the formal framework of one constitution, Russia now has two basic laws. Yeltsin’s remains as decoration, while the essential provisions of Putin’s are applied in practice.

Surveys of focus groups have highlighted a belief among some ordinary Russian citizens that the 1993 constitution was written in the United States, and that Russia sovereignty demands a sovereign constitution. Ordinary Russians are not about to read Putin’s amended document; the point is that they should now sleep soundly in the knowledge that not only Crimea but also the constitution is Russian.

Had Russia’s domestic political opposition chosen protection of the 1993 constitution as its slogan last summer, it would have been acting in the Soviet dissident tradition of calling for compliance with the Potemkin constitution. Unfortunately, the opposition did not take the constitution seriously either, and thus simply ignored the Putin regime’s abuse of the Russian state’s legal foundations.

The famous dilemma posed by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin – either you have a constitution or you have sturgeon with horseradish (a symbol of plenty) – is still with us. But democratic constitutionalism is a necessary condition for economic wealth and the common good. The absence of it in Russia today means there is no democracy, and, for most Russians, not much fish.

Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow and Chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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