“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.”
– George Orwell
As the world battles with a deadly pandemic, Russia is caught up in yet another constitutional crisis. In January 2020, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced significant amendments to the Constitution which are now approved by Russia’s State Duma, Federation Council and Russia’s Constitutional Court. A plebiscite action, which is enumerated in Article 3 of the Constitution of Russia, will now decide the fate of the country.
It was in 1993 when the then Russian President, Boris Yeltsin pressed over the need to replace the heavily amended constitution of 1978, which was amended more than 300 times. The disagreement over this change with the Russian Parliament led to the infamous shelling of Moscow’s White House on October 4th, 1993. In December 1993, Yeltsin was able to ensconce a strong presidency through a new constitution coloured with the spirit of democracy, which proclaimed Russia as a part of the world community.
Though the Constitution of 1993 highly propagated the ideals of equality and democracy at the fore, it gave Yeltsin inordinate powers and was used as a cloak to his covert oligarchy. Article 10 of the Russian Constitution which upholds the principle of independence of legislative, executive and judiciary remained much in the abstract as the President had overwhelming powers in the legislative sphere.
The current situation in Russia mirrors the constitutional fiasco of 1993. The amendments proposed seem to be a stratagem to cling to power and to maintain a “constitutionalized dictatorship” in the garb of democratic ideals.
The Era of Modern Emperor
The most controversial amendment is of Article 81 of the Constitution which limits the number of years and terms for which a president can remain in power. The amendment aims to nullify the present status of the incumbent president. This would reset the clock on Putin’s presidential term count and enable him to run presidential elections of 2024, after which his current and final term would end. The ploy is to extend his office till 2036.
The “term limit theory” adopted by many countries is to restrict the setup of the monopoly of power which grants a leader a chance to effectively become a president for life. With China removing presidential term limits in the past and appointing Xi Jinping as president for life, these actions symbolically hint at the nearing end of democracy’s ascendancy as the political ideal for the future world. It cannot be denied that the feature of term limits was what clad the essentially non-democratic countries in the wrap of democracy.
The power of the head of the state must always be constrained. The fashioning of the idea that changing a leader is dangerous would become a new trend if the democratic trappings of term limits and elections wouldn’t exist. The move to use constitutional devices to legitimise “emperor making procedures” may see other leaders falling suit soon.
The question remains, what future this new fashion would bring? Will countries soon resort to put an end to the tune of democracy and work on strengthening the idea of an eternal office? The power monopoly is to be feared because it abolishes the system of accountability which holds paramountcy in any political structure.
The Falling Walls of Division of Power
Another amendment, amongst the many proposed changes, grants the president the power to request removal of judges of constitutional and supreme courts. The move markedly infringes the principle of division of power and inviolability of judges. In the authoritarian edifice of the Russian power system, this amendment would silence the voices of the judges ruling against it. The result would be a de facto abolition of the independence of the court and in effect, would entrench a convention of subservience to the supremacy. The role of the judiciary and judicial review is of absolute importance and independence is a requisite to its functioning. To shatter the walls of division would only make it a puppet in the hands of the executive, further curbing on the accountability a leader owes to the citizens.
The Exhibition of Explicit Intolerance
A much-debated amendment is in regard to the definition of marriage. The amendment defines marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman. Therefore, homosexual marriages will be given an unconstitutional status. It violates article 17 and 19 listed in Chapter 2 of the Constitution titled – Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen. The decision would infringe the human rights of LGBTQ Community by creating a differentia on the basis of sexual orientation for disallowing them from engaging in matrimony. Another amendment which would give Russian Constitution precedence over international law would further handicap the LGBTQ Community to seek international assistance from various Human Rights Forums. It would also make Russia’s association with such organizations pointless.
Why is the Amendment Package a Matter of Great Concern?
The founding document of a country greatly influences the nature of the government and the rights guaranteed to the citizens. Amendments which run against the very ideals enshrined in the constitution if brought about would shake the social and political fabric of the country. Although the popular sentiment is given due consideration to uphold the democratic foundation of the country, the move is to bring about an authoritarian and fascist regime by crushing the pillar of democracy through forced polling in referendums. Propaganda has been pitched to the people with the use of incentives offering a chance to win apartments, cars or cash prizes upon voting. The city departments and government-controlled organizations are forcing their employees to make a vote in the referendum through threats of disciplinary action. This has reduced the plebiscite, which is the expression of the general sentiment of the people to a mockery of a voting snafu.
The Coronavirus Angle
Another startling issue is the on-going pandemic amidst which the polls will be held. Approximately 7000 new cases of Coronavirus are reported every day in Russia. The conducting of the ballot may create a health crisis and may spike the infection rate exponentially owing to the mass gatherings. To hold an event like such at a time when the risk to a person’s life is markedly high, not to miss the incentive tactics and threat induced voting, the state seems to heavily falter on its duty to protect the citizens.
Referendum Mechanism: An Ordeal of Consternation
A referendum is a vote in which all the people in a country or an area are asked to give their opinion about or decide an important political or social question. This system, although seems to garner the existing public sentiment of the people, is, in fact, meddled with inconsistencies. The voter turnout ratio, the incentives offered, the fanciful imagery of the ideal outcome depicted through heavy advertisements and propaganda actually sway the voter sentiment. Voters are usually fed with fabricated information on the basis of which, they reach a conclusion. It is a socially divisive move altogether.
Now referred to as the “Tsar”, Putin is all set to write the fate of his power his own way. It is only years after from today that the world will know what would become of this change. Altering the foundations of a country to quench the thirst for power is not a notion that should belong in today’s world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mili Budhiraja is a first-year student from Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. She has an interest in the fields of Constitutional Law and International Law.