20 years under Putin: a timeline

On March 10, 2020, during the second reading of the draft law on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, first-woman-in-space-turned-deputy Valentina Tereshkova put forward a surprise proposal—to reset, or “zero out,” the number of presidential terms for Vladimir Putin. The ensuing political theater once again confirmed that some candidates for the presidency are always more equal than others.

 

March 10,2020: During the Duma plenary session Deputy Valentina Tereshkova suddenly proposed to remove limitations on the number of presidential terms and allow Vladimir Putin to be re-elected as Russia's head of state. Photo: YouTube.

 

When Vladimir Putin delivers an address to the Federal Assembly, it is advisable to listen carefully to what he says. Better yet, read the text of the address, which is conveniently published on the Kremlin’s website and accessible to everyone. It is advisable because such an address is not to entertain bored parliamentarians, but to declare the president’s intentions in various areas. By delivering an address to parliament, the president fulfills his constitutional duty to determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy (Article 80, Part 3 of the Russian Constitution), which are binding on all state bodies. This was very clearly formulated by the Constitutional Court in its Resolution No. 9-P of November 29, 2006, indicating that, based on the Constitution, the state’s main directions of domestic and foreign policy are obligatory for all public authorities. 

When on January 15, 2020, the Russian president announced his program of amendments to the current Constitution, he, in particular, noted: “Our society is discussing the constitutional provision that one and the same person should not hold the office of President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms. I don’t think this is a matter of principle, but I agree with that.” And at the end of the address, he added that one of the tasks of state-building is the creation of “a system that ensures, among other things, the turnover of those who are in power or occupy a high position in other spheres.”

It would seem that everything is clear: that high-ranking officials should hold no more than two terms and that turnover of leaders is necessary. Consequently, the bill on constitutional amendments submitted to the Duma on January 20, 2020, made no mention of any “zeroing-out”; neither did the text of the proposed amendments adopted in the first reading.

And then came March 10, 2020, when, in the midst of the second reading, completely unexpectedly, Deputy Valentina Tereshkova went soaring into law-making space, proposing either to remove the presidential term limit from the Constitution, or to reset the presidential term for the current president. Commotion ensued. The Duma speaker said that he needed to consult with the president and faction leaders, the plenary session was halted for an hour and a half, and then the president arrived in person.

There in the Duma, Putin thanked Tereshkova for her proposal and went on to refer to the experience of neighboring states, saying that the practice of electing a high-ranking official for more than two terms does exist, and that there have been such precedents under certain circumstances. And then he gave an example: “The Great Depression, huge problems in the economy, unemployment and poverty in the United States, then World War II.” Here, of course, the president’s speechwriters could have done a better job from the point of view of both geography and constitutional law. For Russia’s “neighbor” Franklin D. Roosevelt was indeed elected U.S. president four times (the last in 1944), but in 1947 Congress passed the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established that no one can be elected to the presidency for more than two terms. The 22nd amendment was ratified in February 1951 and is valid to this day, but for some reason Putin passed that over in silence.

After that, the president noted that when the state becomes more powerful and harder to penetrate from the outside, the issue of power turnover, which is necessary for dynamic development, undoubtedly comes to the fore, adding that he thought it inappropriate to remove the limitation on the number of presidential terms from the Constitution. Still, he considered it possible to give the incumbent president the opportunity to be elected again—if, of course, citizens approve this in the course of the all-Russian vote and if the Constitutional Court does not object. 

Unsurprisingly, the Constitutional Court did not object and citizens did approve the proposed amendments, and as a result we got a charming scheme whereby two individuals are taken out of the scope of the norm on two presidential terms. And for many years these two will be able to play a fun game of musical chairs with the presidency and premiership in full accordance with the Constitution. And it seems that all promises have been kept: the limit of no more than two presidential terms is preserved, and there might even be some kind of rotation of presidential candidates. But not for everyone: some presidential candidates are always more equal than others.

In this spectacular way, on March 10, 2020,  a “zeroing-out” clause was included in the bill on constitutional amendments, despite not even having been mentioned the day before. This performance unraveled like a classic drama:

  • ordinary people asked the world’s first woman in space to pass on the proposal for the president to stay;
  • the cosmonaut’s heart trembled;
  • ordinary people’s request was thus relayed to parliamentarians;
  • the president acted humbly at first, but did not dare upset ordinary people by refusing them their request.

As a result of this political theater, we got the prospect of a long life together with President Vladimir Putin, who now:

  • directs the government;
  • appoints a number of federal ministers (after non-binding consultations with the Federation Council), including the ministers of defense, justice, foreign affairs, internal affairs, et al., the Prosecutor General, his deputies, prosecutors of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation, et al. The president could already fire any of the above-mentioned officials at his own discretion and without consulting anyone;
  • appoints 30 representatives to the Federation Council, including seven for life;
  • has the right to dissolve the State Duma in more cases than the original version of the Constitution;
  • can initiate the procedure for terminating the powers of the presidents and judges of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the cassation and appellate courts with the judicial community having no say in these decisions. In judicial appointments, the president has long held sole power. 

Thus, the president now firmly holds all branches of government in his hands. And the only way stipulated by the Constitution to influence him is to initiate an impeachment procedure. But this procedure, even under Boris Yeltsin, has never been completed.

Incidentally, the constitutional amendments also took care of post-Putin times—that is, what happens when his presidential term actually expires. The president, naturally, has immunity. He cannot be brought to criminal or administrative responsibility, as well as be detained, arrested, or subjected to a search or interrogation. The inviolability of the president after leaving office extends to his residential and office premises, vehicles, means of communication, luggage, documents and correspondence. Only the Federation Council can strip his immunity, and only under the same procedure stipulated for his removal from office. It is based on accusations brought by the Duma, and confirmed by the Supreme Court, of criminal activity by the president, either acting or former, backed up by the Constitutional Court’s conclusion that the established procedure for bringing charges has been observed. Thus, the possibility of criminal prosecution of the former head of state is close to absolute zero. This circle is now complete.

What would Orwell say about our amendments?...

 

* Ekaterina Mishina, Ph.D., professor at the Free University, Moscow.

Russia under Putin

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