20 years under Putin: a timeline

Preparations for constitutional reform in Russia are being rolled out at an unprecedented pace. On January 15, Vladimir Putin proposed to amend the country’s Basic Law, and already on January 23, the corresponding draft law was passed by the State Duma in the first reading. A national vote on the issue is expected to take place on April 22. For those who can’t keep up with these rapid developments, IMR has compiled a brief timeline with selected commentaries by leading Russian legal experts.

 

The first meeting of the first group on constitutional reform took place on January 16, one day after Vladimir Putin had announced the idea to amend the Constitution. Photo: kremlin.ru.

 

January 15: Vladimir Putin proposed to make amendments to the Russian Constitution. On the same day, a working group on constitutional reform was established. The group is comprised of 75 people, including Andrei Klishas, chairman of the committee on constitutional legislation and state building of the Federation Council, and Pavel Krasheninnikov, chairman of the committee on state building and legislation of the State Duma, as well as members of the political elite and public, cultural, and scientific organizations.

January 21: Putin submitted the draft law on amendments to the Constitution to the State Duma. Notable changes include: 

  • codifying the status of the State Council (an advisory body to the president created in 2000) in the Basic Law;
  • limiting the number of presidential terms to two (currently, the Constitution envisions a limit of two consecutive terms);
  • prohibiting foreign citizenship or residence for high profile politicians, officials, judges;
  • creating a more flexible system of government appointments and resignations (for instance, to enable the president to fire only the prime minister while preserving the cabinet; or to give the State Duma powers to approve or disapprove the prime minister’s candidacy, whereas now the parliament’s role is simply to confirm the president’s appointment);
  • establishing the supremacy of Russian law over international norms and agreements;
  • vesting in the president the power to dismiss judges of the courts of highest instance;
  • decreasing the number of Constitutional Court judges from 19 to 11

This draft law would require the amendment of over 30 federal constitutional laws as well as the development of a new federal law on the State Council.

January 23: the State Duma passed the draft law in the first reading. 432 out of 450 deputies voted in favor of making the amendments. The second reading can take place as soon as March 10, while the deadline for suggested amendments was extended to March 2.

January 30: Putin stated that he would make the decision to sign the draft law on amendments to the Constitution only upon the results of the national vote on the issue.

February 13: at a meeting of the working group on constitutional reform, Putin backed the idea to codify in the Constitution the government’s role in regulating family policies and refused to recognize gay marriages. He also favored the suggestion to prohibit the so-called “alienation of the Russian territories” (that is, potentially letting go of Crimea, the Kuril Islands, or Kaliningrad in the future), but expressed doubt that Russia’s status as a nuclear power needs to be enshrined in the Basic Law (“The nuclear status is not eternal,” he said). Additionally, the Russian president supported the proposal to codify in the Constitution the government’s responsibility to index pensions and to keep the minimum wage no lower than the subsistence rate. According to the pro-government Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), 91 percent of Russians approve the amendments to the Constitution as related to these social support measures.

February 18: the working group on constitutional reform introduced a new series of amendments to the State Duma, including: guaranteeing immunity for former presidents; establishing the president’s role as the head of the executive branch (at the moment, the president does not formally belong to any branch of power); establishing the powers of the Security Council and the Presidential Administration.

February 23: the first details of the bill on the national vote on constitutional reform were released. The preliminary formulation of the question to be posed to the Russian public reads as follows: “Do you agree with the proposed amendments to the Constitution?” Two options will be offered as an answer: “yes” and “no.” The vote is expected to take place on April 22, on the 150th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth.

 

Read IMR's report titled “Constitutional Crisis in Russia and How to Resolve It”

 

What Russia’s legal experts think  

Victor Sheinis, co-author of the current Constitution, chief research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Russian Academy of Sciences), deputy of Russia’s First and Second State Duma, member of the Yabloko party’s political committee (Nezavisimaya Gazeta):

“The majority of amendments to the Constitution have to do with the procedure for forming Russia’s government bodies and their powers—primarily those of the president. The 1993 Constitution is often called “superpresidential.” As I have repeatedly pointed out before, it suffers due to the excessive powers vested in the president (which can be explained by the political situation in the early 1990s). <...> The current draft law is said to envision a redistribution of powers between the president and the prime minister. It is not so. At best, only the procedures and the way they are spelled out have changed. <...> The government, which in one part is directly managed by the president and in another part [indirectly by him] through the prime minister, remains as it was—the president’s cabinet. Also unchanged is the procedure [of its formation]: the government resigns after the elections, and reports to the president, not to the Federal Assembly. And the president can dismiss the government at his own discretion. The terms of dissolving the Duma also remain the same.” 

Oleg Rumyantsev, lawyer, executive secretary of the Constitutional Commission, 1990-1993 (Vedomosti):

Twenty-two articles of the Constitution are to be amended—that is 1/6 of their total number, which is substantially more than the changes made by previous laws on constitutional amendments in 2008 and 2014. The spirit of the Constitution is being subjected, step by step, to revisions and a further hollowing-out. There is an inherent contradiction [in the Russian Constitution] between its preamble, the first three chapters (two of which were guaranteed to remain fixed), and the very configuration of the supreme power—most importantly, the way it is practiced. The 2020 amendments are of such nature that they strengthen the presidential (more precisely, supreme) power on a large scale and envision bureaucratic specification and itemization of the constitutional text.” 

Elena Lykyanova, lawyer, professor of constitutional and administrative law at the Higher School of Economics (Meduza):

“It’s a real threat to the constitutional order. There is no expansion of the real powers of the Duma and the Council of Federation… as all of this is a word game: confirmation, appointment, etc. The president can dismiss any judge or prosecutor, so none of these [amendments] work. There will be no truly responsible government. [It] can appoint someone, but the next day the president can remove them, claiming lack of confidence. The same applies to the prime minister. The Duma approves [him], but it’s the president who appoints. Again, it’s a word game. The parliament is not gaining more control, nor is the government getting more responsibilities. All of this is a strengthening of the ‘vertical of power.’ It is the construction of a unified, non-democratic, non-federative vertical—without separation of powers and an independent judiciary, but with impairment of citizens’ rights.”

Henry Reznik, distinguished lawyer, vice-president of the Moscow Bar Association (Kommersant):

In an interview with Kommersant, Reznik said that he “objected to 19 out of the 22 amendments proposed by the president,” adding that the “accelerated pace of the procedure changing the Constitution undermines the legitimacy of any decisions.” In Reznik’s words, “one of the amendments gives the president the right to initiate the termination of the status of judges, including judges of the Constitutional Court.” “I consider this a violation of the principle of the independence of judges because the formulation envisioned in the amendments suggests [that judges can be removed] due to ‘a defamatory action committed by the judge,’ which is a value judgment. It’s unconstitutional, and the judiciary community should be outraged. But the judges are silent.”

Tamara Morshchakova, retired judge of the Constitutional Court (Kommersant):

“I’m against the termination of the status of judges by the president—it violates the constitutional principle of their independence.” “International acts on the status of judges and the European Charter envision that a judiciary body must participate in making decisions on any issues pertinent to a judge’s career—from appointment to dismissal. Without this, these issues cannot be decided. There is no doubt that a number of [the proposed] amendments impair the guarantee of irremovability of judges.”

 

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