11 March 2020
Petition to the Council of Europe to urgently conduct a legal assessment of the amendments to the Russian Constitution!
Citizens of Russia,
Please show your civic engagement by supporting an initiative by more than 120 prominent Russian human rights defenders, leading lawyers, authoritative experts and politicians, in connection with the amendments to the Russian Constitution. They have prepared and signed an open appeal from Russian citizens to the Council of Europe, calling for an urgent legal review of the amendments to the Russian Constitution and the procedure for their adoption.
We now open this appeal to you and invite everyone to add their signature to support it.
The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe is a body of the Council of Europe mandated to examine draft laws and laws of Council of Europe member states, and to give a legal assessment of their compliance with the democratic and legal standards of the Council of Europe.
The sweeping changes to the Constitution initiated by President Putin as a matter of urgency in January-March this year, and the unconstitutional voting procedure for their approval, have provoked negative reactions from Russian civil society, human rights defenders, the democratic opposition, Russian experts and many citizens.
The proposed changes strengthen the already powerful and undemocratic hierarchy of power; reduce human rights guarantees; increase imbalances in the checks and balances system, weakening the independence of the judiciary; and further centralise state administration to the detriment of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation, significantly reducing the autonomy of local self-government.
These changes are not aimed at improving the functioning of Russia’s political system, but at ensuring that the current political elites continue to hold power and at preventing the prospect of the development of democratic and legal institutions. But most importantly, they include the annulment of the current head of state’s term of office, allowing him to be re-elected for two 6-year terms after more than 20 years in office. This will violate the fundamental principle of a democratic state – the alternation of power.
The procedure for adopting the proposed amendments is inconsistent with the Constitution and current legislation, as well as with internationally recognised standards, which calls into question the legitimacy of such large-scale constitutional changes. In practice, what is presented to society as a constitutional reform further distances Russia from the implementation of the principles of a democratic federative state with a republican form of government, European constitutional values and democratic norms, and also directly contradicts Russia’s obligations within the Council of Europe.
We call on the designated bodies of the Council of Europe to urgently request the Venice Commission’s assessment of the compliance with the Council of Europe’s democratic legal standards of the proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution, as well as the procedure for their adoption.
Support this important initiative, show your civic engagement! Sign so that you do not feel ashamed that you kept silent while the future was being taken away from us.
Translated by Suzanne Eade Roberts.
Full text of the appeal:
Open appeal from Russia’s citizens to the Council of Europe for an expert legal analysis of the amendments to Russia’s Constitution and the procedures for their passage
The post-Soviet transformations in Russia were accompanied by a constitutional reform accomplished by the passage of the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation. In 1994, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe deemed the Constitution to be in accordance with the principles of a democratic, law-based state. This conclusion was one of the foundations for Russia’s acceptance into the Council of Europe.
In 2008 and 2014, the Constitution underwent several pinpointed changes aimed, among other things, at extending presidential terms and authorities. Despite the international response to some of these amendments, they were not subjected to expert legal analysis by the Venice Commission.
In the period January-March 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated large-scale alterations in the Constitution, as well as an extraconstitutional procedure for their passage that included a Russia-wide referendum to approve them on 22 April 2020. This initiative provoked an extremely negative reaction among Russia’s civil society, human rights activists, the democratic opposition, and Russian and foreign experts.
The proposed changes to the Constitution were approved in violation of procedure in the form of a Russian Federation Law on amending the Russian Federation Constitution dated 14 March 2020, No. 1-FKZ, “On improving the regulation of individual issues in the organization and functioning of public authority,” and also were deemed in accordance with the Constitution by a Russian Federation Constitutional Court Conclusion dated 16 March 2020, No. 1-3.
We have no doubt whatsoever that these changes violate the notional integrity and consistency of the Constitution and strengthen the already powerful, undemocratic, and unfederative vertical of authority, while also weakening guarantees of human rights and promoting the country’s further isolation from democratic Europe. In particular, the amendments deepen the imbalance in the system of checks and balances and substantially weaken the independence of the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office; they centralize state administration even more, to the detriment of Russian Federation subjects, and significantly straiten the autonomy of local self-government; and they limit citizens’ passive electoral rights. The contradiction between many of the approved amendments and the foundations of the constitutional order secured in chapters 1 and 2 of the Constitution provides grounds for the arbitrary and selective application of constitutional standards for political purposes.
These changes are aimed not at improving the functioning of Russia’s political system but at ensuring that the current political elites remain in power and at blocking prospects for the development of democratic and law-based institutions. Most important, though, they include the zeroing of the term of presidential authorities of the current head of state, allowing him to be elected once again for two six-year terms after more than 20 years in power. This flouts the fundamental principle of a democratic state: the succession of power.
The procedure for passing the proposed amendments is not in accordance with the Constitution and current legislation or with recognized international standards for conducting plebiscites, and this puts the legitimacy of these large-scale constitutional changes in serious doubt.
The fact that it is being offered up to society as a constitutional reform in practice distances Russia even more from the embodiment of the principles of a democratic, federative, law-based state with a republican form of administration and European constitutional values and democratic standards and also runs directly counter to Russia’s obligations within the framework of the Council of Europe.
At the present time, at the request of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on legal questions and human rights, the Venice Commission is preparing a legal conclusion on just one of the amendments to the Constitution (Art. 79), in accordance with which decisions of international bodies approved on the basis of the provisions of international agreements that in their interpretation contradict the Constitution are not subject to implementation in the Russian Federation.
We, human rights activists, representatives of the expert community, and citizens of Russia, call on the authorized bodies of the Council of Europe to quickly inquire as to the opinion of the Venice Commission on whether the changes to Russia’s Constitution as well as the procedures for their approval correspond to the democratic law-based standards of the Council of Europe.
Translated by Marian Schwartz.
For a list of the 128 initiators of the petition, see here.
The petition was signed by more than 100,000 Russian citizens on the online platform Сhange.org on 11-18 March 2020.
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