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How Russia’s Presidency Could Get Even Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves Red Square after a military parade on June 24, 2020 that commemorated the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves Red Square after a military parade on June 24, 2020 that commemorated the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

By July 1, Russians will decide whether or not 206 amendments that could transform the role of the president and the status of citizens’ rights should become part of their constitution. Although all of these changes already have been approved by President Vladimir Putin and the legislature, President Putin has stated that they will become law only with Russian voters’ approval.

To accommodate the need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, voting will begin on June 25. Two regions – Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod – have the option to vote online.

Until voting ends on July 1, Current Time will take a look each day at the most substantial proposed changes.

The Daily Amendment: Separation Of Powers

At times, it can seem as if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supporters and critics are discussing two different sets of constitutional amendments: Government officials and Kremlin-linked mainstream media repeat that the amendments will strengthen the separation of powers characteristic of a democracy. Opponents stress that, in reality, the new constitution will only further concentrate power in Russia’s already powerful presidency.

What’s Changing:

Written after President Boris Yeltsin’s armed conflict with parliamentary rebels in 1993, the Russian Constitution is generally seen as favoring the role of the president. For all the discussion of strengthening parliament, that tendency does not appear likely to change. Former Prime Minister and President Dmitry Medvedev stated on June 25 that a presidential republic “is absolutely necessary” for Russia’s “existence.”

Under the government-approved, proposed revisions:

  • The President Can Install Key Ministers Without The Duma’s Approval: Following a “consultation” with the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, the president will be able to name Russia’s foreign, defense, interior, state security, justice, and emergency-situations ministers as well as the heads of executive agencies dealing with these policy areas. He can get rid of the ministers and agency heads at will. These roles constitute much of the traditional core of the government’s power.

  • The Duma Gains A New Role On Paper: Under the changes, the Duma will be able to confirm or reject – rather than simply be in “agreement with” -- the president’s nominee for a prime minister. The prime minister proposes to the Duma, rather than to the president, his or her candidates for the cabinet and other posts, apart from those mentioned above. The president will not have the right to reject any minister whose candidacy already has been confirmed by the Duma. The president can, however, dismiss any of these ministers once in office.

    Rather than to the Duma, the prime minister bears “personal responsibility” to the president for “exercising the powers vested in the government of the Russian Federation.”

    If the Duma rejects the president’s nominee for prime minister three times, the president simply “appoints” the prime minister and “is entitled to” dissolve the Duma and call early parliamentary elections.

  • The Prime Minister And Cabinet Are No Longer Conjoined: Currently, if the president dismisses the prime minister, the cabinet also departs from power (Article 83.v). Under the revised Article 83.a, the president can hold on to the cabinet, even if he or she gets rid of a prime minister. This provision appears to reinforce the president’s role as the ultimate official whose favor cabinet ministers need to retain.

  • The Government Takes A Back Seat On Executive Power: It’s a bit of word tangle: Currently, the Russian government exercises executive power “under the general leadership of the president of the Russian Federation.” Now, if the amendments pass, the president “carries out the general leadership of the Russian Federation’s government.” (Article 83.b) No mention will be made of the government making use of executive power.

  • The President Can Appoint More Senators: Under Part 2, Article 95 of the 1993 Constitution, the president can appoint 10 percent of the Federation Council’s members, but not more than 17 people in total. If the amendments are approved, the president will be able to appoint “not more than 30 senators” out of the body’s 200 members, and seven of them for life.

    At the same time, 85 of the Federation Council’s 200 senators represent regional governments. The president appoints these government heads. As Current Time’s Anna Shamanska reported, that means that, ultimately, 115 of the Federation Council’s 200 senators will, either directly or indirectly, depend on the president.

  • The President Can Dismiss Senior Judges: The Federation Council currently appoints the judges of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, based on the president’s proposal, but only the judges themselves can remove a judge from office. Now, the president, acting through the Federation Council, a legislative chamber under heavy presidential influence, will be able to do both. (See above.)

  • Parliament Cannot Adopt A Law Against The President’s Will: Even though Russia’s parliament has not tried for a long time to adopt a bill with which the president disagrees, the current constitution foresees such a possibility. Based on the weekly Kommersant-Vlast Magazine’s calculations, such rejections occurred 38 percent of the time between 1996 and 2004, a period that includes President Putin’s first term in office.

    Under Article 107 of the current constitution, if the president rejects a bill, but two-thirds of the legislature approves it, the president must sign the bill into law.

    But the revised Article 107 now gives the president a potential counter-punch: If the Constitutional Court finds that a bill is unconstitutional, the president can return the bill to parliament unsigned. He will only sign bills that have the Constitutional Court’s sign-off.

    The Constitutional Court, though, does not function entirely independently from the Kremlin. Under the revisions, the 11 Constitutional Court judges will be appointed and dismissed at the president’s suggestion by the Federation Council, a legislative chamber where the president would control, directly or indirectly, 58 percent of the seats.

  • The President Appoints And Dismisses The Prosecutor General: The Federation Council now appoints and releases from duty the prosecutor general “according to the president’s proposal.” (Part 2, Article 129) After the amendments, the president will be able to appoint the prosecutor general “after consultation” with the Federation Council, but dismissing the prosecutor general is altogether up to the president alone.

  • The State Council Could Prove Another Presidential Tool: A revamped State Council, a heretofore advisory body, is the wild card in these changes. Under the proposals, the president will form this body to “ensure coordinated interaction between state authorities and determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy.“ Initially, this proposed reform was seen as a way for President Putin to stay in power once his current term expires in 2024. Further details about the change have been left to a later law, however.

Observers: ‘A Rejection Of The Principle Of Separation Of Powers’

Russia’s current constitution asserts that the country’s government rests on a separation of “independent” executive, legislative, and judicial organs (Article 10).

Medvedev, who, like Putin, has been both prime minister and president, has underlined that the proposed constitutional makeover completes the “development of the principle of the separation of powers, which is the general principle of a functioning democratic state.”

The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted in a June 15 editorial, however, that past experience shows that Russia’s constitutional norms “can be as democratic and liberal as you please,” but the key is “who interprets these norms.”

Experts interviewed by Current Time tend to concur with the more pessimistic assessment.

Under the changes, the legislature will lose the possibility to override a presidential veto and to participate in government appointments, they note. The new version of the constitution makes plain that the president holds all executive power; the role of the government will decrease.

The so-called power ministries and the foreign ministry are “turning into part of the president’s office, not subservient to parliament,” while the role of the prime minister and cabinet has been diminished, objected Yelena Lukyanova, a professor of constitutional and administrative law in the law faculty of Moscow’s National Research University-Higher School of Economics.

The judicial branch and the prosecutor general’s office have now, also, been included in “the presidential power vertical,” she said, using the term that refers to the Russian president’s top-down authority.

As for the president’s right to request that the Federation Council dismiss higher court judges, “it will, without a doubt, influence their rulings,” predicted Ilya Shablinsky, another leading constitutional law scholar from the Higher School of Economics.

“This makes the principle of the separation of powers meaningless,” he said. “The judges now should think 100 times before they make a ruling that can somehow not please the president” since judges “can be removed with a single snap [of the fingers].”

Shablinsky took further issue with the Federation Council losing to the president its ability to name the prosecutor general, a role he called the Federation Council’s “key power," though one it has not exercised independent of the president.

While the separation of powers remains in the constitution, “in fact, nothing of it has remained since all the most important powers are concentrated in the hands of one person,” he concluded.

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