32 pages – this is full text of the law recently put to referendum “On Amending the Constitution of the Russian Federation”. Not just not one amendment, but 46, creating new state bodies, guaranteeing index-linked pensions, defining family as the union of a man and a woman, extending the State Duma’s powers, and mentioning Russians’ belief in God following the atheistic USSR. But only one amendment is significant here.
The referendum ballot paper contained just two options: “For” or “Against”. Amendments to the Constitution – initiated by the Russian president on January 20, before the pandemic – have been approved in record time by the State Duma, Constitutional Court, and regional assemblies. Why did Vladimir Putin want to amend the Constitution, and how will it change Russia?
“We mean the specific amendment which is named after the first woman in space. What one might call resetting,” Georgiy Satarov, an expert at INDEM Centre for Applied Political Studies, says.
Amendment No. 15 removes the constitutional loophole that allowed Putin back into power after Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. Now only two terms to rule the country will be permitted, but this restriction will not apply to anyone who has “held or is holding the office of President of the Russian Federation […] when this amendment comes into force”.
That means Putin’s terms will be reset, and he will again be eligible to run in the 2024 elections. If he stays in power for two six-year terms, he will vacate the presidency no earlier than 2036.
Putin’s formula for extending his term in office is nothing original: in post-Soviet countries, four leaders have reset their presidential terms before.
The trailblazer was the former leader of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev. In 1998, the Constitutional Court ruled that Akayev’s second term was actually his first, since the president was first elected before the adoption of a new Constitution limiting the number of terms.
In 2000, the Constitutional Court of Kazakhstan resorted to the same method to reset Nursultan Nazarbayev’s first term.
In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov held a referendum to extend his presidential term from 5 to 7 years in 2002. Making the most of this major constitutional change, he went on to run for two new 7-year terms. A similar manoeuvre to reset two terms was executed by Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon.
But the Russian Constitutional Court prevented Boris Yeltsin from resetting his term in 1998. The judges were adamant that Yeltsin was president before the Russian Constitution came into force. But in 1996, citizens elected him for his second presidential term, not his first.
Interestingly, the Ukrainian Constitutional Court allowed then-president Leonid Kuchma to reset his first term and restart the counter from the 1996 Constitution, but Kuchma turned down the opportunity.
Apart from Putin and Central Asian leaders, the presidents of Burundi, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Bolivia, Venezuela and Egypt also extended their powers by resetting. However, not all of them managed to stay in power till the end of their extra terms.
One of the amendments guarantees the president immunity even after retirement, and that immunity is almost impossible to revoke.
The Constitution will include the president’s right to convene the Council of State. This body, consisting of regional heads and Federal Assembly deputies, has been around for twenty years. Its powers are limited: the president and its members can discuss the budget and inter-regional relations. However, its powers could be expanded by a federal law mentioned in the amendments.
The range of candidates for the presidency will shrink. Anyone who has lived in Russia for less than 25 years or has ever held a foreign residence permit will be ineligible. If you’re a university professor, IT specialist, or businessman who has worked abroad, you’ll be unable to run for election. But if you’ve made a career in the civil service or national security, your path to the presidency is wide open.
“Due to the vague wording, Putin also falls into that category… He also lived in another country for quite a long time and so on… They made a bad job of writing it,” Georgiy Satarov stresses.
Officials, MPs and judges will be banned from holding foreign citizenship, bank accounts, and residence permits. But no one will stop them from owning foreign real estate.
It’s an open secret that the Russian elite owns property overseas. The Navalny-led Anti-Corruption Foundation discovered that Senator Andrey Klishas, initiator of laws on foreign agents and the so-called “sovereign Internet”, has a villa in Switzerland. The wife of United Russia member Nikolay Valuyev owns a house in Spain, and his West-bashing fellow party member Konstantin Zatulin also has an apartment there.
In fact, officials have been prohibited from holding foreign citizenship and residence permits since 2006. However, anonymous Telegram channels regularly publish reports of Russian ministers and MPs with foreign passports.
Another constitutional amendment will free the Kremlin of having to abide by international and foreign decisions, including from the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which ordered the Kremlin to pay $50 billion to former Yukos shareholders. Other bodies are the UN International Court of Justice, which is examining Ukraine’s case against Russia for annexing Crimea, and even the European Court of Human Rights, to which relatives of passengers from the Boeing shot down over Donbas intend to appeal.
These four-dozen amendments will make no significant changes to the Russian Constitution or the political system. The referendum draft contains just a few crucial lines. They will allow Putin to rule for another 12 years, his authority extended in ways tested successfully 20 years ago by authoritarian leaders in Central Asia.
At the end of his sixth term, Putin will be 83. He will be eight years older than Leonid Brezhnev, and more than a decade older than Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the elderly Soviet leaders who led the country into stagnation.
Alyaksandr Papko, belsat.eu