NY Dispatches: Russia’s territorial integrity and the constitution

Vladimir Putin presented his amendments to his own constitutional reform bill yesterday. At the first sight the proposals seem to be worded to drive turnout in the constitutional referendum scheduled for April. But there is more to this text than a banal conservative agenda.

While the text drafted and adopted in the first reading in January set the cornerstones of the constitutional reform and was mostly about the political architecture of the coming period, the newest amendments are all about selling the constitution and building Putin’s political heritage.

Only some of the amendments concern political institutions. Among these are proposals raising the residency requirement of presidential candidates from 10 to 25 consecutive years and excluding those who have ever held foreign citizenship from presidential elections. Putin’s amendments also introduce various other restrictions for candidates to public office and stipulate that federal agencies may function from a city outside of Moscow.

The rest of the amendments outline a strong conservative agenda with social guarantees. Marriage will be defined as a union between a man and a woman. God and the “ancestors” of Russia will be mentioned in the preamble, as will the USSR as Russia is going to be defined as the Soviet Union’s successor state. The state will have a monopoly over interpreting history by receiving the right to “protect historical truth” and the memory of the “defenders of the Fatherland”. Russia’s territorial integrity – save for settling border disputes with neighboring countries – will be illegal to question. The amendments name the Russian language “the language of the people forming the state”. Lastly, the amendments also state that the minimum wage shall be set at or above the subsistence minimum, although this will be calculated “across the country”.

At the first sight, the intent seems clear: to have a couple of potentially popular amendments directly linked to Putin – thereby also giving them more visibility – while amendments affecting political institutions are quietly drafted and adopted. Enshrining solemn sounding but essentially empty conservative slogans (some of which Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov had trouble explaining to journalists) in the constitution may even drive turnout in the “popular vote” on the reform, which the Kremlin reportedly wants to be at least 60% across the country. A survey conducted by the Levada Center in February found that 65 percent of Russians did not understand the “essence” of the constitutional reform while 58 percent did not understand “what the changes are for”. This distinction may look amusing and confusing, but it is clear that the Kremlin wants the vote to be about emotions and identity rather than anything else. This last worked two years ago in the presidential election; since then negative feelings about the authorities have been driving the turnout in various elections and the authorities did their utmost to suppress it. The Kremlin probably hopes that reinvigorating Russia’s electoral autocracy may help a yet-to-be-rebranded United Russia in the coming legislative election too.

Yet, the amendments constitute more than just an attempt to conceal a more consequential institutional reform. They seem to reflect Putin’s opinion on what domestic development Russia should be the most afraid of: namely, separatism.

Efforts to discourage all forms of separatism have accompanied Putin’s career in the federal government. One of his earliest federal jobs as the deputy head of Boris Yeltsin’s administration was reining in on regions that, in the wake of Russia’s financial meltdown in 1998, started taking independent budgetary and at times, foreign policy initiatives. Then came the second war in Chechnya, which ended in the brutal pacification of the region under the Kadyrovs who stopped all talk of independence, but received the republic as a personal fiefdom in exchange. Then the federal government started centralizing political and budgetary control over Russia’s regions, gradually chipping away also at the elements of cultural self-determination that “regions with an ethnic character” enjoyed. In recent remarks, Putin stressed that the constitutional reform, which prescribes a “unified system of power” should cement a chain of bottom-up accountability.

Yet recent years have seen angry protests against various aspects of Moscow’s rule emerge in Tatarstan, Udmurtia, Ingushetia, Kalmykia, Komi and Chuvashia, among others, and while it seems very unlikely to happen any time soon, the possibility of Russia’s Far-Eastern regions declaring their independence never really left the political agenda either.

Putin’s amendment forbidding calls and actions to question Russia’s territorial integrity seems to be about Crimea. Sure enough, the amendment also enshrines Russia’s commitment to maintaining the annexation of the peninsula in the constitution. But they are also (and perhaps primarily) a signal that in the coming transition period the authorities regard nipping all kinds of separatism in the bud a priority – and also that they regard the emergence of separatism as a possibility.

Important regional leaders may still get something in return, just like the Kadyrovs were given free rein over Chechnya. Tatarstan’s president, for one, has expanded his political network, preserved the republic’s oil company, Tatneft and has been rumored as a future leader responsible for all Middle Volga republics. The State Council, which along with the Security Council is regarded one of Putin’s possible exit strategies from the presidency and whose powers will be expanded, is made up mostly of regional governors.

So what concrete steps will Russia take to discourage separatism? To quote an instant classic, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “I think that will be clarified in due time”.

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