By Arthur Evans
The 12th of December is an official holiday in Russia — Constitution Day. The Constitution, adopted back in 1993, during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, in fact, provides a solid foundation for president Putin’s current political system. Noteworthy is that, since those truly revolutionary times, the Constitution has remained virtually intact.
This very document — the cornerstone of the Russian state — may contain answers to many questions concerning the Russian understanding of politics, economy, human rights, the phenomenon of Putin and his power. These questions, though difficult, are exactly the ones my fellow journalists and political scientists seek to answer. Let’s try to sort it all out.
It is no secret that for the most part Russian society has been, and remains, rather conservative. Due to its long-established political culture, it would prefer a super-centralized state system over the maximum freedom and liberal philosophy in its modern interpretation. Say, whether we like it or not, any political force in Russia that chooses to build its program on the now-trendy libertarianism is doomed to little if any support, even among the youth.
Russians remember too well the history of their country, its turbulent times and periods of political fragmentation, civil wars and consequent external interventions, the epic falls of the magnificent empires (half of the world in size). They, therefore, see a stable state as the ultimate overarching goal and outcome of social development, which they instinctively preserve with care and fear to lose. A short time ago, in the late 1990s, the newly emerged Russia stood at the threshold of another collapse.
Any Russian, irrespective of their political views, will tell you the name of the one who kept it from falling apart. Vladimir Putin. This narrative is deeply ingrained in public consciousness. Perhaps, this is the reason behind the super-centralized state hierarchy within which the principle of separation of powers enshrined in the Russian Constitution is realized, albeit not without flaws.
You won’t find a separate presidential “branch of power” in this document, and yet the Russian Federation is de facto, as they say, a super-presidential republic governed not by civil or public institutions but rather by administrative mechanisms, whose effectiveness depends on whether there is a relevant presidential decree or instruction.
Interestingly, the Russian Constitution of 1993 does not directly define the type of Russia’s economic system but unambiguously identifies its foundation — property. Private, state, municipal, and other forms of property enjoy equal recognition and protection in Russia. Land and other natural resources can also be owned.
However, the population still has a lot of questions as to the legitimacy of private property rights to mineral resources, major infrastructures and industries of critical importance to the country (such as energy, defense, communications, and road networks). We know for a fact that ideas of social justice have always been relevant in Russia. This has to do not only with the legacy of Communist rule but also with Russia’s rapid transition to a market economy, which created a sharp social divide.
The “instantaneous privatization” of the 1990s often provokes heated public discussions. Many Russian citizens believe that, at the time, it was not the Kremlin that ruled the country; the country was run by the “new Russians” — criminal oligarchs who, sitting in their fancy offices, shaped the policy and appointed their puppets to high positions in the government.
Everything changed when Putin came to power to gradually transform that Wild West capitalism into state capitalism, making large businesses serve the interests of the Russian state and, as many believe, Russian society as a whole. For this to happen, he had to demonstrate his power as president (as in the case against Yukos and Mikhail Khodorkovsky).
However, from that time on, it is Russian business elites that carefully write down Putin’s orders and diligently follow them, not the other way around. Putin himself, while denying the need to reconsider the economic outcomes of the way the Soviet Union’s legacy was distributed, keeps creating large state-run corporations which become the country’s biggest taxpayers.
In doing so, Putin upholds the principle of social justice. Of course, when Russia adopted a democratic constitution in 1993, it only outlined its intention to move towards organizing society based on law. Many countries have followed this path for centuries, and — if truth be told — not always very successfully.
Russians have every reason to say that not all provisions contained in this fundamental document work in practice. Although, I assume people out in the streets of Paris and other European capitals can say the same thing about their constitutions. Now, lawyers may say otherwise, but the Russian Constitution was not written from scratch. It was based upon a long record of civil rights struggle and painstaking search for an effective state system.
Seamlessly embedded in Russia’s current political architecture, it proved to be remarkably resilient. Despite the numerous proposals by various political forces to change the Constitution, Putin didn’t succumb to a shifting political environment or personal political ambition and left the fundamental law of the country unchanged. So it seems fair to say that the Constitution has withstood the test of time, while Putin has withstood the test of the Constitution.