Russia’s constitutional amendments and what this means for the government and Russian citizens?

Dear Editor,

THE nationwide vote on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation was completed across the whole country on July 1, 2020. Even though the official vote day was set for July 1, citizens could take part in it throughout the seven-day period between June 25 and July 1 due to coronavirus precautions meant to eliminate the risk of transmission.

According to the Russian Central Election Commission, the amendments were supported by 77.92 percent of the voters at polling stations while 21.27 percent opposed, after 100 percent of voting protocols were processed. The official turnout was 67.97 percent.

On July 3, President Vladimir Putin signed an executive order, setting July 4 as the date when the Russian constitutional amendments came into effect. In the same order, the relevant authorities were instructed to officially publish the Russian Constitution with the approved amendments.

It is worth saying that the amendments of 2020 are considered to be the third package of substantial amendments to the current Constitution of the Russian Federation. Since its ratification in 1993, only three amendments have been proposed. In 2008, in order to prolong the presidential and the State Duma terms, as well as to introduce an annual report by the Prime Minister for the Duma members, four articles were changed. In 2014, eight more amendments were ratified and one was taken away, which resulted in abolition of the Supreme Court of Arbitration and adjustment of prosecutors’ assignment. Also, two more articles had been changed to allow the President to nominate up to 10 percent (17 members) of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.

On January 15 2020, Putin during his annual address to the Federal Assembly proposed that new amendments be introduced into the Constitution, with 41 articles rewritten and five more added. Excluding the 1st, 2nd and the 9th chapters, which can be changed only by calling together a Constituent Assembly and developing a new Constitution, around 60 percent of articles were subjected to alteration. The main amendments focused on how to improve the division of power between the branches of government while upholding the presidential system that was established in 1993.

In general, the following major amendments have been proposed:

• The Russian Constitution should take precedence over international law;

• The State Duma (the lower house of Parliament) should have the right to approve the Prime Minister’s candidacy (instead of giving consent to his/her appointment), and be able to approve the candidatures of Deputy Prime Ministers and Federal Ministers, while the President becomes unable to reject their appointment, but in some cases can remove them from office;

• Persons who hold “important positions for ensuring the country’s security” (President, ministers, judges, heads of regions) should have no foreign citizenship or residence permit in other countries, either at the time of their work in office or, in the case of the President, at any time before;

• A presidential candidate should live in Russia for at least 25 years (instead of 10 years) and should not have ever had a foreign citizenship or residency (with no possibility of renouncing foreign citizenship to become eligible for presidency);

• Withdrawal of the “in a row” clause from the article regulating the maximum number of presidential terms, and disregard to previous presidential terms served before the amendment enters into force;

• The Federation Council (the upper house of Parliament) should be able to propose that the President dismisses federal judges; in some cases, on the proposal of the President, should have the right to remove judges of the Constitutional and Supreme courts;

• Particular ministers who are the heads of law enforcement agencies should be appointed by the President in consultation with the Federation Council;

• The minimum wage should not be lower than the subsistence minimum;

• Regular indexation of pensions;

• Consolidation of the status and role of the State Council (prior to the amendment – an advisory body not referred to in the Constitution);

• The Constitutional Court should have the capacity to check the constitutionality of laws adopted by the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation at the request of the President before they are signed by the President;

• Faith in God;

• Defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.

The constitutional amendments of 2020 were developed by a special group consisting of parliament members, scientists and public representatives. As a result of their work, the Constitution was supplemented by articles imposing a distinct government attitude towards such things as public health, science, culture, voluntary work and young people.

In addition, the amendments feature a couple of innovations, such as viewing Russian language as a “language state-forming people”, protecting the “historical truth” and mentioning faith in God with regard to heritage. These are the traditional values that Russia has been consistently advocating. No doubt, it runs counter to today’s Western liberal mainstream, but Russians are well aware of that.

As you can see, the constitutional vote of July 1 was not merely about, as some media tried to present it, Putin’s presidential terms. In fact, it has a much deeper meaning for Russians, way beyond restarting presidential terms. It was all about strengthening the statehood of Russia, creating conditions for consistent development of the country for dozens of years to come, consolidating spiritual foundations of the Russian society, taking the next step in building a stronger, better Russia for all.

Mario Nghishitende