14 October 2020
By Boris Vishnevsky, deputy to the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize
The rapid approval in the first reading on 13 October of the presidential bills — on the government, the prosecutor’s office and the Constitutional Court — has aroused virtually no interest (except for the usual reporting on Kremlin-TV).
But that is regrettable, since it is precisely now that Putin has begun to implement his amendments to the Constitution.
Not those senselessly declarative amendments that served as a smokescreen, but those that are really important for him: Sharply increasing his power — which he is not, of course, planning to give up. Strengthening the autocracy even further.
It is worthwhile to remind ourselves of these amendments and their significance.
First, the law on the government.
“The rights of parliament are being expanded!” the State Duma website joyfully declares.
These are fairy stories for the naïve.
The State Duma will, as before, approve the appointment of the prime minister only in accordance with the president’s recommendation. And the Duma can, as before, be dissolved if it twice refuses to approve the president’s candidate.
Won’t the Duma get the right to approve deputy premiers and ministers proposed by the prime minister? But the president can at any moment dismiss all or any of them and will not need the assent of parliament to do so.
Key ministers — defence, foreign affairs, internal affairs, justice, and the heads of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Federal Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service — are not approved by the Duma at all: they are appointed independently by the president. After holding meaningless “consultations” with the Federation Council, which is completely dependent on the president.
As before, the State Duma cannot dismiss the government without risking its own dissolution. It can express lack of confidence in the government (but only in the government as a whole, not in an individual deputy premier or minister) — but the previous mechanism is fully preserved, giving the president the right to choose between the resignation of the government and the dissolution of the State Duma. And it is obvious which he will choose in a crisis.
This is not an “expansion of the powers of parliament.” Rather, it is the same as before: an eternally technical government, completely controlled by the president.
The changes to the law on the Constitutional Court are worthy of note.
First, the reduction in the number of judges from nineteen to eleven. This is in order to make the Court easier to manage.
Second, the president will be able to propose the dismissal of any judge of the Constitutional Court. The dismissal will be executed by the obedient Federation Council (to which no-one is appointed without the preliminary approval of the Presidential Administration). Therefore, this Sword of Damocles will always hang over every judge. If, for example, there is suddenly a call to recognise as unconstitutional something that has been signed by the president.
Third, the president will now be able effectively to slow down the legislative process by asking the Constitutional Court to check the constitutionality of a bill that he is required to sign into law. As for how the Court will respond to the president’s requests — see the previous paragraph.
Fourth, the Constitutional Court will acquire the right to decide whether Russia should comply with “decisions taken by international bodies on the basis of the provisions of international treaties signed by Russia that are found to contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation,” and also with “decisions taken by a foreign or international court, or an international arbitrator, that impose obligations on the Russian Federation, in the event that such a judgment contradicts the foundations of public law in the Russian Federation.”
It is obvious that, if the Kremlin does not wish to comply with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) or of other international courts or arbitrators, the Constitutional Court will immediately find grounds for this. This means that Russian citizens are unlikely to be able to use the ECtHR to reassert rights that have been violated by officials. This is regardless of the fact that, by signing the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia undertook to comply with the decisions of the ECtHR without question.
Finally, changes to the law on the procuracy: the Prosecutor General, his deputies, prosecutors of the constituent subjects of the Russian Federation and their equals will be appointed to office by the president after consultations with the Federation Council; they will also be dismissed by the president. Previously, regional prosecutors were appointed by the Prosecutor General after consultation with the regions. Now the regions are to be stripped of this right: this is a complete “vertical.” Will a prosecutor who is entirely dependent on the president, and considers him his boss, always insist on the observance of citizens’ rights that have been violated by the state? This is a rhetorical question.
Translated by Elizabeth Teague