The protesters who took the streets in Russian cities across the country came out against the no-holds-barred system that the authorities had forced upon them, the degradation of the country’s morals and legal system that the government had doomed society to. The protesters called for fair and honest elections and playing by the rules, both slogans that united anyone hoping to see these rules become a reality in Russia, and not abroad, as well as people who can sense not only just how unfair things are on election day, but also in everyday life as they are forced to bow to bureaucrats’ demeaning arbitrary rule.
Even after the 10 December protest rally at Bolotnaya Square, however, it became obvious that even the event’s enormous number of participants, something unprecedented for Russia under Vladimir Putin, would not force the authorities to declare the 3 December parliamentary elections illegitimate and set new ones. The authorities didn’t budge even after the rally on 24 December on Sakharov Prospekt, one that brought together even more people than the first one.
The authorities, on the other hand, have to enjoy watching how their opponents’ publicly bicker back and forth over how the anticipated negotiations with the Kremlin should be held, and how some of them are in a fuss rushing to anoint themselves the chief negotiators.
By having permitted the protests and ignoring their resolutions, it’s as if the government said to the protesters, “You have the right to demand new elections, and we have the right to turn you down, while considering any negotiations on this to be pointless. You are entitled to disapprove of a third presidential term for Vladimir Putin, while we are entitled to work to make his return to the Kremlin a reality. You won’t defeat us, because the state system we created gives us legitimate control over all resources. Our right is stronger, because the Russian Constitution, which gives us a monopoly on power, protects it. How could the apolitical public, even more afraid of revolution than we are, taking the street stand up to our monopoly?”
It goes without saying that the authorities don’t say this out in the open, but it’s most likely the gist of what they are saying. So what does this imply? It implies that rigging elections is just one of the ways that a legitimised monopoly on power is manifested, while fighting election fraud is not the same thing as standing up to the monopoly itself.
A monopoly on power and fair elections
By rejecting the protesters’ demands and sending disenfranchised voters to settle their grievances with the elections committees in Russian courts notorious for their being under the government’s thumb, the authorities have made a lot of people wonder about things that they hadn’t even thought about before. One of those things, almost the most important one, is if the authorities are able to dictate the rules of the game, then maybe the problem isn’t Putin, Medvedev, Churov or someone else, but rather how the government itself is set up, making it possible for this monopoly to exist? This question was followed by some answers, which had the word “constitution” appear along side “monopoly on power.”
There has never been anything of the sort before. In the autumn of 2011, Sociologist Georgy Lubarsky used a method he developed to conduct research on Internet users’ opinions. The research, ordered by the Liberal Mission Foundation, looked to find out how people perceived the meaning of “a monopoly on power.” They discovered that in the vast majority of cases this means power belonging to the United Russia Party, being compared to the Communist Party, and Putin himself. There wasn’t any mention at all of the Constitution, which bestows almost unlimited powers upon the president. Most bloggers saw fair elections as a way to break up this monopoly, which is why they took the streets in December.
Then it became crystal clear that the authorities can allow themselves to be impervious to the people’s protest and demands. Thus, the number of people who began to reflect on the way the Russian government is built and the Constitution that legitimises it began to grow at breath-taking speed.
Demanding fair elections and consolidating the public around this demand is, of course, extremely important, because it is critical to make the authorities understand that they are dealing with the citizenry and not a bunch of village idiots. Let’s, however, not be naïve, whether it’s regarding the possibility of fair elections in our government system or about their ability to significantly change the current system as long as the authorities legitimised monopoly on power holds true. Could even ultra-fair parliamentary elections have any notable impact on the country’s economic or political course? No. The reality is that elections and their outcomes, under Russia’s current constitutional order, don’t foresee having this kind of influence. They have been, in this regard, stripped of any political meaning at all.
First, the State Duma has practically no means of influencing the government, whether it is the way the government is formed, works or through dissolving it. Second, the Constitution provisions that the president determines the country’s domestic and foreign policy, and he can enact it in whichever way he sees fit, even if the Duma is in opposition to him, since he controls its fate.
This is exactly the reason why it looks extremely naïve when people take the stance that a way to right the current political stalemate can be found within the legal framework of the Constitution. They say that all you have to do is follow its provisions and spirit to guarantee free political competition and that the government is the one that the people elect. But having this kind of competition is impossible with the Constitution we have! And the same goes for actual political representation of various social groups. Should the president dictate how policy is shaped, then party competition during parliamentary elections, even if they are honest, can only be competition for places in the Duma and for privileges, and not for the chance to make their political platforms a reality. The competition will be for the status of being in the Duma, but not for political weight.
Some would parry that according to the Constitution, the public, supposedly, elects the president. And since that is the case, then honest elections will allow the public to have a real say in setting the country’s economic and political course. This, however, is also an illusion, because with the powers that the Constitution bestows upon the president, his policies won’t be the outcome of a compromise between various political powers and the social classes that they represent, but rather it will manifest a monopoly of a party’s policies that the public is coerced to accept, policies that are to be determined by the president’s surrounding “references groups,” also known as the high-ranking bureaucracy. These are exactly the type of policies that all three of Russia’s presidents have carried out, even though officially they haven’t belonged to any party and though, under Yeltsin, the party hadn’t yet taken shape either in terms of organisation or politically. Back in the 1990s we had the chance to observe how an impotent parliament dominated by the opposition can stand as a hurdle in the president’s way; however, this very parliament was unable to amend the president’s policies.
Now we are plunging deeper down into whether a party politician can be the reliable protector of the constitutional order (the “Guarantor of the Constitution”), as the Constitution itself provisions for. This, after all, is approximately the same thing as if a referee played for one of the two teams on the field. What would happen? That’s right: a no-holds-barred match.
It’s obvious that the president finds it more interesting to be a politician than a guarantor; he doesn’t want people to get in his way. Therefore, no matter who becomes president, he will strive to put the clamp down on his ideological and political opponents. He will aim to incorporate all the institutions of power, including the parliament, into the bureaucratic hierarchy of his own government. There are some presidents, such as Yeltsin, who lost the popularity he had once had, who don’t do this very well, and then there are others, like Putin, who are better at it. But we must make it clear to ourselves that although Putin’s having established total control over everything under the sun may be a frightening turn of events, it is also a completely natural one under the constitutional order that we have.
With such a Constitution like ours, it’s completely logical that the unharnessable aspirations of presidential power to constantly expand its authority.
Research by one of the above-mentioned article’s authors shows that since the Constitution was passed in 1993, Russia’s three presidents have been granted 502 new types of authority: Yeltsin received 165, Putin was given 226, and Medvedev was divvied 111. Moreover, as far as the Constitution is concerned, many of them are dubious, and often simply unconstitutional, with 41 such ones being given to Yeltsin, 108 to Putin and 51 to Medvedev. A monopoly on power, as is reinforced in the Constitution, yearns to expand even further, and there’s no one to put a stop to it. Most depressing of all, not even one presidential candidate in Modern Russian history has stated that he is willing to give up these powers. The same goes for obligations, should the person win, to initiate amending the Constitution itself. Judging by things so far, we aren’t going to hear anything of the sort during the current presidential campaign either. We reiterate, however, that today this will mean that Russia’s politicians are out of touch with the public’s quickly changing sentiment.
Talk online about the Constitution is taking people away from the slogan of fighting for honest elections to the slogan of being against the country’s autocratic government. People are now speaking out not just against United Russia and Putin, but against the constitutionally enshrined institutional system that has made the phenomenon that is Putin possible and that is void of the tools to counteract yet another rigged election such as what took place on 4 December.
So what is being proposed in place of the “autocratic government”? How are people proposing to amend the constitution, and what do they want to amend in it?
A parliamentary republic and constituent assembly
We’ll go beyond proposals to return the presidential term to four years and erasing the phrase “in a row” – thanks to which Putin is able to become president again – from the Constitution; making amendments such as these won’t change anything. Would they be able to serve as a road block to appointing new “successors”? No, they wouldn’t. Even having proposed, however, that the electorate will reject the latest “successor” by electing someone else, then we will get the same monopoly all over again, only this time by whomever the winner is.
It seems that those who contemplate what is going on are already realising that these types of superficial reforms are not enough. Proof of this can be found among people raising their voice louder and louder in support of switching to a parliamentary republic that will allow to finally hinder the rebirth of a Russian autocracy. To make this happen, calling together a Constituent Assembly is recommended. What can we say about this?
We’ll begin with the Constituent Assembly. This, of course, is something that needs to be discussed, but at the same time we shouldn’t hide from ourselves that such an assembly would mean a revolutionary break in legal succession that wouldn’t bypass any of the protestors from recent days who have taken to the streets hoping for peaceful change without any revolutionary upheaval. Having a Constituent Assembly that presupposes completely annulling the current constitutional order and yet again pressing the reset button on Russian history doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be any upheaval. Incidentally, terminating legal succession and calling together an Constituent Assembly are not at all required to completely replace the Constitution with a new one, because there already is a way to do this that is provisioned for, only that it has a different name: The Constitutional Assembly. This structure can forge out and pass a new constitution or propose a draft constitution to be put up for referendum. At the moment, however, it isn’t clear how and who can call this assembly together, and how it will be shaped, because the appropriate law for this doesn’t exist; nonetheless, having such an organisation assembly is provisioned for. The only question is whether it needs to be used to transform the current type of government into a parliamentary republic.
It has long been obvious that a parliamentary government is more pluralistic and stable that a presidential one, not to mention one with a greater guarantee of preventing a return to authoritarian rule. But today, just like 20 years ago, we believe that Russia’s transformation into a parliamentary republic harbours the danger that the whole state system will fall into chaos.
A parliamentary government works efficiently only in countries where strong political parties have taken shape and where a democratic political culture and constitutional legal awareness have taken root. After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the parties that have came to the forefront have as much taken root as they have decomposed, which is entirely natural, since not one of them has had the chance to assume actual political responsibility. Just what responsibility could they have when they are removed from shaping and carrying out the country’s political course? This goes for United Russia as well, which, no matter how much it puffs itself up, it is not a political party, but rather a club of Putin backers, a parliamentary belt between him and the bureaucracy. As for the political culture, we haven’t gotten rid of the zero-sum game mentality. Both politicians and most of the public have it engrained in them that the country’s politics are like playing King of the Hill: if I (we) am/are at the top, then everyone else below should bow down. Russia for this very reason does not fit the mould of a presidential republic such as those in the United States and Latin American countries.
Selecting such an option of government, which features the president heading the executive branch, in an inchoate democratic and legal political culture leads to confrontation between the branches of power, because such a model doesn’t allow for the president to dissolve parliament (the lower house) or for the parliament to voice its lack of confidence in the president and his administration. As for Latin American countries, it is in no way fortuitous that military revolts have been so common place when conflicts, unable to be resolved by political means, are dealt with through violent means.
We must work with the level of culture in Russian society that we have, what is widely referred to as its mentality, because founding a government that is knowingly incompatible with this mentality won’t lead to anything good for the country. At the same time, we shouldn’t be stuck with obsessing about this mentality, one that even in the 21st century supposedly dooms us to being forced to come to terms with having an autocratic government. True, Russians’ style of interacting with each other, how we see the government and how they see us, don’t really fit in with the contemporary way of how people see a state governed by the rule of law. But what is there left for us to do? Wait until we become “mature enough” for it? If so, then based on what are we to become “mature enough”? What’s going to propel this maturity? Society, indeed, is not really disposed to wait as it rots in the shadow of an autocratic government, and recent events testify to this. Isn’t it so that people’s rejection of a government run by a strong man, manifested during the December protest rallies, show that there is a natural desire for something other than an autocracy, for an new government order? Do people’s calls for amending the Constitution that are being backed by more and more people not attest to this? Whatever the case, now is the time to move from making these calls to discussing specific constitutional drafts.
The referee and the players should be separate
We believe that we need to work off the premises that we won’t think of anything better for Russia than a semi-presidential model.
As experience shows in France, Portugal, Finland, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and other countries, this type of governing model is entirely capable of working. What’s more, at the time this model was accepted in any given one of these countries, not all of them had a society that had a high level of political culture and constitutional awareness. So why then do none of them have an autocratic regime, while we do? Why is it that this model doesn’t cause this culture and this awareness to decay, as it does in Russia, but rather ameliorate its quality? The answer is that these countries have a system where the president, elected by the people, has powers that are balanced with the powers of the parliament. This is what we are to accomplish by amending the Russian Constitution accordingly.
Below we are proposing the following amendments for discussion (incidentally, a Constitutional Assembly isn’t needed to pass them) which would be wise to make:
1. The president should be given the role of chief guarantor of the constitutional order, the protector of fair rules in the country’s political life, but at the same time he should be stripped of his role as a player in party politics. For starters, he should be deprived of such functions as determining the country’s chief domestic and foreign policies and providing for “the coordinated operation and interaction of government agencies”. The latter of the two functions is so blurred that it is virtually a mandate for interfering with any state institution. Meanwhile, the president’s role as the guarantor of the constitution needs to be fortified. For example, this would be done through granting him the right to appoint the general prosecutor and plenipotentiary for human rights, while having bestowed the latter with more significant powers than it currently has. Moreover, it would be wise to directly subordinate the Ministry of Internal Affairs by transforming it into a national guard.
2. The constitutional order should presuppose creating a government, first and foremost by the State Duma. To make this happen, the government needs to waive its power not over to the newly elected president, but to the newly elected Duma, which then should make its proposal of a candidate for prime minister to the president, and not the other way around, as it is done now. And only if the lower parliament is unable to agree on a candidate should the president be entitled to form his own government, which the Duma will express its confidence or lack of confidence in a year later.
3. A vote of no confidence in the government should lead to its immediate dismissal. As things currently are, the president has the right to choose between either dismissing the government or dissolving the Duma. It’s not hard to fathom that should the Duma pass a no-confidence vote in the government, the president will take the latter of the two options. It’s no coincidence that after our parliamentarians under the current Constitution had several times conjured up the courage to threaten the government with a vote of no-confidence, not once have their threats been followed through on.
4. The president should be stripped of the right to dismiss the government at any time at his own initiative.
These are just the chief amendments that need to be made to the Constitution, and without them we believe that Russia will not be able to cast away its autocratic system. Free elections at this time will not change anything, because the Constitution affords the president the guarantee that all they will do is reproduce the system we have now, which by virtue of its nature will gravitate toward morphing into rigged elections.
The only question left to answer is how and who can carry out this already long overdue systemic transformation, one that in essence is a revolutionary but is guided by evolutionary methods that presuppose preserving legal succession.
Such transformations that have taken place the world over have, despite their differing features, something in common. These transformations take place when the demand for systematic change in society reach the surface; when society’s most educated and driven classes refuse to recognise the country’s totalitarian or authoritarian government as legitimate, but at the same time want not just to kick one group of rulers out and install new ones, but overhaul the state system itself.
All successful systematic transformations over the past decades have taken place for the very reason that not recognising the authorities as legitimate, demanding fair and free elections and establishing amendments to the constitutional rules of the game have been combined all into one as these changes have been carried out, all the while consolidating all the powers of the opposition. Wherever such conditions have not been guaranteed, however, a country slides back into its previous system under the old or new rulers. What do we see in Russia today as it erupts in protest?
Today’s opposition camp, as we see it, doesn’t have the unity over even whether the authorities themselves are legitimate or not. It stands to reason that if a politician consents to participate in the elections that the authorities hold, then he legitimises them, just as when he demands that these elections be fair, while at the same time not demanding constitutional reform. This is because he at the same time has the illusion that fair elections (and annulling the outcome of unfair elections) is possible while preserving the status quo.
The issue is not whether it is admissible or not to negotiate with the authorities on the new rules of the game. Examples from Spain, Poland and other countries show that this type of approach is not only possible, but also the most painless. True, a transformation in this case begins with legislative regulations that are passed by the very same authorities that their opponents don’t consider to be legitimate. But if these regulations can lead out of an outdated system that is personified by the authorities, then there is room here for pragmatism. At the same time, the willingness of some of our opposition politicians to acknowledge the right of the current State Duma, which they declare to be illegitimate, to pass individual “useful” laws is baffling, because they are talking about laws that, should the autocratic form of government be preserved, do not lead to a new systematic quality.
Therefore, we will reiterate here that those in society who contemplate what is going on and realise the need for constitutional reform are ahead of the politicians. Does the reason for the self-organizing Internet-community to refrain from handing these politicians the leadership mantle lie in the fact that they don’t represent, whether individually or together, any systematic alternative?
Is this why these people prefer to underscore their apolitical attitude and the civilian nature of their protest? Do they manifest an unacknowledged demand not only for a new type of government system, but also for a new, non-personality-cult type of political leadership?
We may be mistaken; however, if this kind of dual demand in fact does exist but won’t be voiced if the politicians continue to demonstrate their sect-like ambitions, then the wave of protest will inevitably lose steam. People cannot go on forever voting for resolutions demanding for holding elections over again while at the same time realising that such demands are not enough, and therefore cannot be made a reality. Meanwhile, there aren’t any other resolutions being offered to them that fit in with the rapid metamorphosis of their attitudes ever since the first protest rally on 10 December. It may happen that the demand for a systematic alternative and a new type of leadership will be pushed to the sidelines by an alternative type of personality-cult rule that counteracts not only the authorities, but also the disjointed opposition. The symptoms of this can already be deciphered.
When a strategy dissolves in the tactic used, there isn’t going to be any significant success, whether immediately or later on. The slogan of free elections being voiced at the Russian authorities is a certain type of tactic, as is “Not one vote for Putin!” But what is this tactic meant to achieve? Does it aim to slightly renew the make up of the impotent Duma and bring another person to power who will establish a monopoly on power? We are already hearing how people from the opposition camp are calling on people, should there be a second round in the upcoming presidential elections between Putin and Gennady Zyuganov, to vote for Zyuganov, only to duke it out with him after the elections. What for? To establish free elections that will catapult a new competitor into the very same presidential monopoly, legalised by the Constitution?
We believe that it’s desirable today to go down a different path.
It’s desirable to take the shift in the public conscience toward constitutional reform and put it on the political agenda. It should be used as the opposition’s strategic backbone whose preservation and fortification is much more important than the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections. This should be a backbone that will be decisive after the elections as well, no matter what the vote tally will be.
This path most likely doesn’t promise quick results either, but it does have promise, which is what the current option being proposed doesn’t have. Promise is what mobilises people, while not having promise demoralises people. The faster people can grasp this, the better.