Is Putin’s Sweeping Constitutional Amendments a “Constitutional Coup” or a Step towards Maturing Russian Political Landscape?
January 15, 2020 (Wednesday) is a watershed moment in the political landscape of Russia. On this date, the incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin announced (during his annual address to the Federal Assembly) nation-wide voting on sweeping constitutional reforms. The nation-wide voting will be held on April 22, 2020.
The constitutional amendments would limit presidential power and also provide more control to Duma (Russia’s Parliament). The President formally submitted the bill on January 20, 2020.
A last-minute proposal was put forward by Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space). This proposed amendment was added to the constitutional reform package, providing Putin with the option to serve two more terms in office after his government’s current term in office comes to an end in 2024.
The current constitution doesn’t allow Putin to serve any further term as President as he has already served two Presidential terms since 2012. If exercised by Putin, it would pave his way to stay in power till 2036.
The State Duma approved the constitution amendment proposal in the 3rd reading without any objection. President Vladimir Putin signed the final constitutional reform package on March 14, 2020 (Saturday). On March 16, 2020 (Monday), Russia’s Constitutional Court approved the constitutional amendments.
The constitution amendment proposals will now be put before the Russian people for voting on April 22, 2020 (notably on Lenin’s 150th birthday). Rather than approving each amendment separately, the Russian voters will be asked WHETHER THEY AGREE to all the constitutional amendments AS A WHOLE. The April 22 nation-wide voting is referred to as “All-Russian Vote.”
What are the Proposed Constitutional Amendments in Russia?
In general, 14 articles will be changed as per the constitutional amendments. The proposed amendments are:
Proposed Amendment #1:
The amendment seeks to do away with the “in a row” clause from the article that regulates the maximum number of presidential terms. If the presidential terms, previous to the amendment, comes to force will be discounted.
Proposed Amendment #2:
The Russian constitution will be given precedence over international laws.
Proposed Amendment #3:
The lower house of the Russian Parliament or State Duma will have the right to approve the candidacy of the Prime Minister. Currently, the State Duma only gives consent to the appointment of the Russian PM.
Proposed Amendment #4:
The State Duma will have the right to approve the candidacy of the Deputy Prime Ministers and Federal Ministers. Once the amendments come into force, the President will be unable to refuse the appointment. However, the President can remove them from office in some cases.
Proposed Amendment #5:
This amendment points out that a person holding essential positions related to maintenance of Russia’s security (including the President, Ministers, judges, and heads of regions) should neither have foreign citizenship nor residence permit in other countries.
Proposed Amendment #6:
In the case of Presidents, the new amendment proposes that he/she can’t have foreign citizenship or residence permit in other countries at the time of their tenure and any time before that.
Proposed Amendment #7:
Currently, a Presidential candidate required to live in Russia for at least ten years. However, the new amendments will require a presidential candidate to live for at least 25 years in Russia.
Proposed Amendment #8:
The upper house of the Russian Parliament (known as the Federation Council) can propose the President to dismiss Federal judges.
Proposed Amendment #9:
The Federation Council, in some cases on the President’s proposal, will have the right to remove the judges of the Constitutional Courts and Supreme Courts.
Proposed Amendment #10:
The President can appoint the heads of law enforcement agencies in consultations with the upper house of the Russian Parliament or the Federation Council.
Proposed Amendment #11:
The minimum wage can’t be lower than that of the minimum subsistence level.
Proposed Amendment #12:
Another important amendment proposes regular indexation of pensions.
Proposed Amendment #13:
Currently, the State Council is just an advisory body and not prescribed in the constitution. As per one of the new amendments, there will be a consolidation of the status as well as a defined role of the State Council.
Proposed Amendment #14:
Another important amendment grants the Constitutional Court the power of checking the constitutionality of laws adopted by the Russian Federation’s Federal Assembly at the President’s request. This power is provided to the Constitutional Court before the President signs the laws.
Controversies, Criticisms, and Putin’s Justification to Remain in Power till 2036
Controversies And Criticisms
Russia to Go Ahead with Nation-wide Voting even when the Country is Struggling with COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus Crisis
Even as Russia is struggling to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, the Russian President is steadfast on holding the April 22 nation-wide vote on constitutional amendments.
2-Term Limit Not Applicable for Putin but his Successors
Speculations are rife that these sweeping reforms, if implemented, will provide Putin full grip on power till 2036. The constitutional Court, as well as both houses of the Parliament, has approved a “one-off” exception for the incumbent President Vladimir Putin by allowing him to continue two more additional terms (of 6-years each) as President.
The Kremlin spokesperson has said that the two-term limit for Presidents would be applicable for the successors of Putin.
Adoption of New Amendments will lead Putin to Rule for 36 Years
If 67-year old Putin indeed exercises his power, then he will rule Russia for 36-years, overtaking the longest-serving Russian leader Josef Stalin. At the end of his two additional terms as President of Russia, Putin will rule Russia even at the age of 83 years and will become the oldest person to rule the country in more than 1,000-year of its history.
Extra Constitutionality of the Referendum and “Constitutional Coup” through “All Russian Voting”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has noted that the Parliament of Russia can change the constitution but went on to argue that to legitimize the amendments, a national vote is necessary. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has made it clear that the national vote doesn’t entail a referendum.
Neither a referendum nor convening of the Constitutional Assembly is required for renewing the constitution proposed by Putin. In a statement, Putin has himself said that a final decision on the matter would be taken only after the voting process is complete. This statement itself means that the nation-wide voting is not binding.
However, Russia’s constitution says that the results of a nation-wide vote should be enforced. In that case, it means that a referendum would be carried out as an extra-constitutional procedure, which is much similar to that of an online poll.
Putin’s critics have accused the incumbent Russian President of carrying out a constitutional coup and seek fast-track changes to the political system of Russia by bypassing proper procedures, including a referendum.
The “All Russian Voting” on April 22, 2020, has been introduced by Vladimir Putin for the first time to make some sweeping amendments to the Russian Constitution, provisioned by Article 2 of the draft law. The All Russian Voting is neither a legal term nor provisioned by the constitution. It is also not mentioned by federal law, other legal documents, or regional laws.
The Opposition is Furious, and a Section of Civil Society has also Aired their Displeasure
Vladimir Putin is still broadly popular in Russia. However, opposition personalities are furious about the constitutional amendments (especially the ones that provide him the option to extend his tenure as President by two additional terms) announced by him. The opposition feels that the April 22 poll is the constitutional bait-and-switch of Putin.
Many opponents feel that the ban on large public gathering over COVID-19 coronavirus fears in Russia will work in favor of Putin as the opponents have fewer avenues of registering their disapproval.
Alexei Navalny, a well-known opposition politician and critic of Putin, said that with these constitutional amendments, Vladimir Putin is all set to become the Russian President for life.
Other opposition personalities such as Ivan Zhdanov, an ally of Navalny, consider this move a constitutional coup.
Another opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov accused Putin of conceiving this “indecent fuss with the Constitution” for extending his Presidential tenure by two additional terms.
A section of the civil society (including more than 420 Russian scientists, writers, and lawyers) has published an open letter urging Russians to resist the plans of President Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s Justification to Extend Presidential Power by Additional Two Terms
Valentina Matviyenko (Speaker of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation) had said ahead of the Federation Council’s vote that passing of the Constitutional amendments is one of the most important issues in the modern history of Russia.
She hailed President Vladimir Putin by describing him as one of the great leaders of the world and went on to say that Putin raised Russia from its knees (referring to the post-1991 economic and political situation when USSR was disintegrated).
Speaker Valentina Matviyenko also hailed the constitutional amendments proposed by Putin. In these amendments, Putin favored limiting Presidential terms to two terms. He considers that the country will “mature” politically by 2036, and till then, he needs to be at the helm.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had officially proposed bringing new constitutional amendments on January 15, 2020 (though he announced possible amendments to the Constitution on December 19, 2019, during a press conference). However, until March 2020, he denied any extension of his rule.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson of Putin, said that the incumbent Russian President was forced to change his mind and seek an extension of his rule after witnessing the global instability.
The amendments put forward by Putin also include stipulations that ban gay marriages and also protect the “historic truth” of Russia’s pivotal role in World War II.
A 67-year old Vladimir Putin (who started his career as a KGB officer during USSR-era) has ruled Russia for more than 20-years either as a President or Prime Minister. If the April 22 “All Russian Voting” gets support from more than half of the country’s voters then it may pave way for Putin to rule Russia for more than 36 years. The final approval will come through the plebiscite scheduled on April 22, 2020.