NY Dispatches: The shape of the constitution

Friday was going to be the (extended) deadline for presenting amendments to Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reform bill that the State Duma adopted in the first reading in January. Pavel Krasheninnikov, the co-chair of the constitutional reform working group however announced that the deadline would most likely be pushed back to 2 March. This delay stands in contrast to the haste – merely a week from Putin’s first vague proposals – with which the reform bill was drafted and adopted in the first reading. But it makes sense. The cornerstones are already in place.

The bill, as adopted in the first reading, set the cornerstones of the amendments: everything that was important to Putin personally, while leaving the door wide open to various possibilities, interpretations and tweaks. In the second reading, the political and business elite are invited to suggest tweaks to the bill within the bounds set in January. Putin can ill afford to make significant concessions, but it is probably better to establish a compromise between key players that leaves them with the necessary amount of assurances than to let them battle it out later, which risks some of them questioning the whole reform. The delays are likely an indication that reaching this compromise is not an easy job.

The changes introduced between the first and second readings further confirm the desire to preserve a strong presidential system in Russia: most of the amendments introduced to clarify the Duma’s role in the formation of governments suggest weakening the parliament’s powers to block the process or to act as a check on the president’s choices; presidents may in future have the right to nominate 30 members of the Federation Council, the upper house of the parliament, instead of 17 now; they may automatically become senators for life themselves. One amendment suggests introducing the concept of “federal territories”, which the central government would manage directly; this may put some of Russia’s richest regions under the direct control of decision-makers in Moscow, presumably to fend off separatist sentiments. Putin’s suggestion to make mayors accountable to governors who in turn would stay accountable to the president in a “unified system of power” would further strengthen the increasingly highly centralized system with little to no grassroots legitimacy that has come to characterize Russian regions in recent years.

Some of these proposals will pass and others will not. Some aspects of the reform, however, are definitely here to stay.

One of these is the uncertainty about the powers and the structure of the State Council, thought the by many to be Putin’s way out of the presidency. The constitutional amendments define wide and broadly interpretable functions for the institution but leave the details to a constitutional law that the Duma has not even started discussing yet (and on which it will probably not take a vote before the end of this year).

Another one is a commitment to a range of social guarantees. The constitution will most likely contain provisions about the indexation of wages, pensions and social benefits to inflation and may forbid future governments to reduce the social obligations of the state. The various social spending promises that Putin laid out together with the constitutional reform will cost 4 trillion rubles to implement until 2024 according to the estimates of the Finance Ministry. The Russian government may be able to find this money; the head of the central bank said this week that as she understood, the government would not change its fiscal rule limiting budgetary spending to finance this spending. The commitment to these promises is one of the reasons why the constitutional amendments have met no strong popular opposition yet. It is also one of the reasons why prime minister Mikhail Mishustin whom the Kremlin marketed as a competent administrator started his career at an approval rating of 48 percent, 10 points above his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev.

These priorities also rhyme with studies on the changing attitudes of Russian voters. In November 2018, Leontiy Byzov, a sociologist argued, based on survey carried out by the Russian Academy of Sciences that the “Crimean consensus”, which rallied Russians around Putin in 2014-18 and that many thought was the overture of an imperialistic political project based on foreign policy adventurism was misunderstood: most Russians simply do not have these attitudes or if they do, they are not strong enough. Most Russians, Byzov argued, simply consider Crimea as Russian territory, and this is unlikely to change, whoever or whatever follows Putin.

Byzov also doubted that the protests triggered by the government’s pension reform, which laid bare the end of the “Crimean consensus” would coalesce into a bigger movement, since these protests were mostly reactive, and there wasn’t any opposition force that had a coherent political vision that appealed to a large enough group of voters. But neither did, he warned, the government. The modernization of the Russian state, at least in a political sense, was in a dead end: the government did not have enough political capital for top-down modernization, and another model, based on the collective mobilization of citizens was also unlikely, given the low degree of trust in institutions and the erosion of traditional social structures. Byzov thought that Russian voters were also unable to identify with the corporatist structures that Putin had been building. Therefore, he concluded, Russians could only rally around the idea of an effective state providing social justice. And this is also what the constitutional amendments and Mishustin’s government are pitching to voters.

Of course, there is no guarantee that plans work out, especially given the remarkably low efficiency of government spending in Russia. This is why it is also vital for the government to preserve its monopoly on providing or even articulating social justice. Putin supporting the automatic indexation of wages personally may be regarded as an answer to Alexey Navalny’s call for a public sector union to check the implementation of Putin’s earlier promises regarding wages. Some suggest that the state goes even further. Konstantin Gaaze, a sociologist called the unusually harsh sentences in the “Network” case against left-wing activists a sign that the Russian government will not allow independent movements to defend the interests of the disadvantaged. Whether or not this is so, the government’s ability or inability to even out social injustices will almost certainly be a key element in the coming transition period.

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