Russia is holding a national voting on amendments to its Constitution. Last Thursday kicked off one week in which Russians are asked to cast their votes on changes to the document. The formal date is July 1, but the polling stations were opened as early as June 25 in order to avoid too high turnout due to the so-called pandemic.
Vladimir Putin announced a set of amendments to the Constitution in his annual address to the Federal Assembly on January 15. The same day he ordered to form a working group to draft these amendments. The group was composed of 75 politicians, legislators, scholars and public figures and it submitted the proposals that formed the basis of the new Constitution. On March 11, the State Duma adopted the draft amendments to the Constitution in the third reading. On the same day, they were approved by the Federation Council.
The referendum was originally scheduled for April 22. The date coincided with Vladimir Lenin’s 150th birthday. It was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The draft amendments to the Constitution were submitted to a referendum in accordance with article 2 of the Law on Amendments to the Constitution adopted on March 16, 2020. Voters are given a yes-or-no vote on the full text of the new Constitution.
After Putin proposed constitutional changes, the amendments sparked significant debate both inside the country and beyond its borders. The proposed amendments to the Constitution affect various spheres.
The amendments, which can be described as ideological, received the great public response. According to a sociological study, the most important among them for Russians was the amendment to “on the protection of historical truth”:
“The Russian Federation honors the memory of the Fatherland defenders and protects the historical truth. Belittling the significance of the feat of the people in the defense of the Fatherland is not allowed.”
This amendment is extremely relevant in Russian society. This is due to various external factors. First of all, Russia’s neighboring states such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland issue resolutions condemning Russia’s position in the Second World War. This is accompanied by the demolition of the monuments to Soviet heroes in large cities, what causes great indignation among Russians and arouses great controversy at the international level.
Moreover, this amendment is gaining popularity due to the ongoing unrest in the West. In the USA protesters demolish monuments to prominent historical figures who formed the American identity – Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jefferson, and so on. The Russian government tries to prevent this in its own country, believing that the Empire collapses when it loses its ideology. Today, the strengthening of Russia as independent conservative ideological center may contribute to the further strengthening of the Russian position on the international arena.
If this amendment is primarily of concern to the countries of Eastern Europe and has received little coverage in the Western media, the following amendment to the Russian Constitution has aroused great interest in Western Europe and the United States.
The proposals to amend the Article 72 of the Constitution gained wide resonance in the West. The article says (the changes are in bold):
“In the joint jurisdiction of the Russian Federation and subjects of the Russian Federation are:
… the protection of family, motherhood, fatherhood and childhood; the protection of the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman; the creation of conditions for worthy education of children in the family, as well as for adult children responsibilities to care for their parents…”
Despite the fact that today same-sex marriages are not recognized in Russia, if the amendment is approved by a vote, the marriage between members of the LGBT community will be excluded at the level of the Constitution. Currently, there are no special laws prohibiting same-sex relationships or gender reassignment surgeries in Russia. At the same time, since 2013, there is a Federal law prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality among minors, which criminalizes public manifestations of non-traditional sexual orientations.
Conservative views on homosexuality are widespread in Russia, and recent polls show that most Russians are opposed to accepting homosexuality in their society. In particular, intolerance of homosexuality is present in regions with persisting traditional way of life, such as Chechnya or Dagestan.
Covering the proposal to introduce this amendment to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, The New York Times wrote in March:
“President Vladimir V. Putin has proposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in what political analysts suggest is an effort to raise turnout for a constitutional referendum that could keep him in power but has so far stirred little enthusiasm among Russians.”
The Guardian in the article «Putin submits plans for constitutional ban on same-sex marriage» claimed that “[t]he move, announced by Putin in January, was initially seen as a way for him to hold on to power after 2024, when as things stand he will no longer be able to serve as president because of term limits.”
Moreover, a flag of the LGBT community was displayed on the buildings of the US Embassy in Moscow to protest the proposed amendments on the first day of the national voting. The US move was followed by embassies of Canada and the UK. This is a concerted political action in direct contravention of Russian law on responsibility for propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors.
The amendment to the Constitution excluding the possibility of same-sex marriage does not correspond to the newly imposed neo-liberal values labeled as the Wester-rooted. At the same time, believing its own values to be the only correct and universal, the collective West imposes them in various regions of the world, including in Russia. The promotion of liberal values is certainly necessary for the West to strengthen its world domination, but this often leads to negative consequences.
The reaction of the West to the amendment to article 72 primarily emphasizes that the introduction of changes to the legislation regarding LGBT communities serves as a distraction for the population, which will allow Vladimir Putin to remain in power after the end of his presidential mandate in 2024. Also, the Western community itself is much more concerned about the amendments to reset Putin’s terms than about the well-being of homosexuals in Russia.
By its ideological changes, Russia confirms the unacceptability of Western ideology for its society, while also making important changes to the country’s administrative apparatus itself, which will allow it to be strengthened.
Given that the West in general has a negative attitude to the figure of Vladimir Putin, primarily because of his success in governing the country and in strengthening Russia, the amendment to reset the terms of his rule is particularly frowned upon. Paragraph 3 of Article 82 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation states:
“The same person may not hold the office of President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms.”
In this wording, it is proposed to remove the word “consecutive”, and to extend the effect of this amendment only to the current President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. This allows resetting the terms of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, and gives him the opportunity to run for the presidency in 2024.
Political analyst Nathaniel Reynolds wrote in a paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
“Putin’s use of more than 200 amendments was a “stunning trick” to mask the real purpose of the constitutional vote — allowing him to remain in office. It was a shocking exercise in political deception, even to the many regime insiders left in the dark.” Reynolds also noted: “A younger Putin recognized the dangers of such a precedent. He told a journalist in 2005 that if leaders change the constitution for their own purposes, there will be nothing left of the state.”
Moreover, Western media reproach that the attention of the population is not particularly focused on this key amendment. The Russian authorities are conducting a large advertising campaign of other amendments, primarily socially conservative ones such as protection of historical truth or a ban on dual citizenship for government employees. These principles, designed to unite Russians, are at the heart of the system of conservative Patriotic values of the head of the Russian state.
During his presidency, Vladimir Putin brought Russia to the international arena and significantly strengthened its position as a regional power center. Further strengthening of the country is unacceptable for the West that provokes strong criticism of this amendment. However, the abolition of the presidential term limit only increases the level of democracy in the country because people have a chance to vote for an actual president as many times as they want. The President can only be chosen through democratic elections, and allowing Putin to run in 2024 does not guarantee his victory. Moreover, most likely, the amendment to reset the time frame allows to stabilize the situation in the country for the next few years. If it is not accepted now, then a tough power struggle in Russia will begin today which will significantly destabilize the country.
On June 18, the Venice Commission criticized some amendments to the Russian Constitution initiated by Vladimir Putin.
The European Commission for Democracy through Law – better known as the Venice Commission as it meets in Venice – is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters. It involves all countries that are members of the Council of Europe, including Russia, and some countries outside this organization. Its role is to analyze the laws and draft legal advices to its member states.
European experts expressed concern that the new Constitution proposes to include the possibility of dismissal by the Federation Council of judges of the constitutional court on the proposal of the President.
‘’The proposed innovations make the constitutional court more vulnerable to political pressure, since the powers of judges can be terminated on the proposal of the President,’’ experts say.
European experts also recommended the proposed amendment to Article 79 to be changed or completely deleted. It proposes to affirm the right not to execute “decisions of interstate bodies adopted on the basis of provisions of international treaties of the Russian Federation in their interpretation contradicting the Constitution of the Russian Federation”.
This amendment provides for the possibility of not complying with the decisions of international courts, including the European court of human rights. Experts of the Venice Commission in their conclusion point out that by joining the Council of Europe and ratifying the Convention on human rights, Russia is obliged to comply with the decisions of the European court of human rights, and with article 46 of the Convention, which indicates that the execution of court decisions is mandatory.
On June 25, the representative of the European Commission Peter Stano made a statement that the amendment on the priority of the Russian Constitution over international law violated the international obligations of the Russian Federation.
In response to criticism from Europe, the Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs of Russian State Duma, Leonid Slutskiy, emphasized that this practice is widely used by countries, including members of Europe, and the amendment does not cancel Russia’s international obligations.
“We have consistently explained and continue to explain to our European partners: the amendments to Article 79 do not nullify the international obligations of the Russian Federation, Russia has fulfilled them and will continue to do so. It is an issue of establishing the primacy of the Constitution, which fully complies with foreign experience. For example, there is much stricter primacy of national legislation over international legislation in European states like the UK and Germany, not speaking about the United States,”
Russia in its foreign policy has always defended the rule of international law in the world system. This international law should be based on consensus, and first of all should be represented by international institutions such as the UN. Today, Russia recognizes that international law is not more presented by an international agreement but by American legislation that applies anywhere in the world. The adoption of the amendment on the supremacy of the Russian Constitution over international law strengthens the country’s position and underlines its frustration with the current destruction of the entire world system.
According to social research, the most important for Russians is the amendment on the protection of the country’s sovereignty at the constitutional level. This amendment suggested to Article 67 is one of the most criticized abroad:
“The Russian Federation ensures the protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Actions (with the exception of delimitation, demarcation, redemarkation of the state border of the Russian Federation with neighboring States) aimed at alienating part of the territory of the Russian Federation, as well as calls for such actions, are not allowed.”
This amendment to the Constitution regarding the territorial integrity of the country caused a large condemnation by the United States.
Krista Wiegand, American expert on territorial disputes of the Center for Global Security Studies in Tennessee, claimed that “Russia does not want to play by international rules” and this is dangerous for Japan and Ukraine.
This statement is completely unjustified.
According to the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of 1956, ending the state of war between the countries, the USSR agreed to transfer the Habomai and Shikotan Islands to Japan on the condition that the actual transfer would be made after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty. Moscow’s position is that the southern Kuril Islands became part of the USSR, which Russia became the legal successor to, are an integral part of the territory of the Russian Federation legally based on the results of World War II and enshrined in the UN Charter, and Russian sovereignty over them, which has the appropriate international legal confirmation, is not subject to doubt. Today, it is not Russia that threatens Japan, but the opposite, as Japan claims “its northern territories” to be under Russian occupation.
A similar situation has developed on the Eastern borders of Russia. Since the accession of the Crimea to Russia is a fait accompli, Ukraine has no choice but to declare annexation and try to claim de facto Russian territories.
The amendment suggested to article 67 does not threaten any other state. First of all this amendment prevents separatism inside Russia.
The creation of the threatening image of Russia is beneficial for the Democratic American establishment. At the same time, countries with territorial disputes with the Russian Federation reacted with more restraint.
Japanese government Secretary General Yoshihide Suga noted that changes to the Constitution are an internal matter for Russia. Political expert Ikuro Nakamura noted that the Japanese government believes that the changes to the Constitution are aimed at increasing Patriotic consciousness in Russian society.
Former advisor to the Greek prime minister for co-operation with the Russian Federation and Eastern Europe, Dimitrios Velanis, said:
“Russia has many times throughout its history experienced an attack or an attempt by other powers to occupy its territory. It was in almost all wars. From all these wars Russia emerged victorious and lost none of its territories. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Great Victory.”
Furthermore, the French Foreign Ministry proclaimed through its representative that “the constitutional change is a sovereign decision of the Russian Federation, which must fully comply with international obligations”.
It would be difficult to imagine the opposite reaction of the West to the proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution. They strengthen the country both insight and in the international arena, which causes fear in Western countries.
In response to criticism of the package of amendments to the Constitution, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Federation Council Konstantin Kosachev said:
“The West’s reaction to public discussions of amendments to the Russian Constitution is taking the form of an aggressive campaign bordering on interference in the country’s domestic affairs. The reaction of what can be described as ‘Collective West’ is taking the form of a hostile and aggressive campaign against Russia, which is bordering on interference in our domestic affairs.”
At the same time, Russian experts say that they expected a larger company from the West, and today’s criticism was much weaker than it could have been. Indeed, the US has demonstrated that it could lead strong anti-Russian companies, for example, by accusing it of interfering in the election of President Trump. The UK also conducted a strong informational campaign, which was called the “Skripal Case”. Today, Russia is faced with a choice, and its society is really experiencing great differences regarding the future development of the country. This moment is most favorable for external intervention and, if the West had the opportunity, it would be able to significantly influence the development of Russia in a way that would be beneficial to it. However, today the influence from outside is insignificant, which is primarily due to the weakness in the Western countries themselves. The crisis after the coronavirus epidemic, followed by large-scale protests in all countries do not leave the power for weakened world leaders. In addition, on a more global scale, while still maintaining the role of world hegemon, the US has never been so weak in relation to developing new centers, and it seems that it can no longer control the situation in various world regions, including Russia.
The amendments to the Russian Constitution demonstrate that the current Russian leadership has tried to pass the period of reconstruction after the crisis of the 1990s and the period of the rise of the 2000s. The Constitution adopted in Russia in 1993 was essentially an ideal document that would allow Russia to reconcile with the market system world. It was mostly designed to satisfy interests of Western puppeteers of the new post-Soviet Russian ‘democratic’ elites. Russia was as an independent state and an international actor was weak in 1991. 30 years later, a stronger Russia is embarking on its own path of development, different from the Western one. And the gap between the Western way and the Russian one seems to be widening. Therefore, a chance exists that in the bright multicolored future there will be place not only for the neo-liberal minorities-ruled West and the radically-conservative Islamic East, but also for a balanced center in Eurasia.
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