Putin pushes (yet another) Russian Constitution

Critics worry amendments, expected by year's end, would foster authoritarianism.

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The United States has used the same one for more than 200 years, with only rare adjustments. But in Russia, a fresh Constitution seems almost a rite of passage for each new Kremlin regime.

Lenin prepared two successive Constitutions. Stalin wrote a whole new one, as did Brezhnev; Gorbachev tried, but was deposed before he got around to it. After sending tanks to disperse a recalcitrant parliament in 1993, Boris Yeltsin authored the document currently in force.

Now, human rights activists and some liberal politicians warn that President Vladimir Putin, barely a year in office, is setting the stage for a sweeping revision of Russia's constitutional order. They worry about changes Mr. Putin might make to fundamental law but, even more, they lament the apparent failure of Western-style constitutionalism to take root in post-Soviet culture.

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"In Russia, a Constitution was always the manifesto of the man currently in power," says Sergei Ivanenko, a top leader of Yabloko, Russia's oldest and largest liberal party. "Americans live by one Constitution that accurately defines their rights and freedoms, while we have one Constitution after another, none of which says much about our real conditions."

Using his majority support in the Duma, or lower house of parliament, Putin has already made key changes. These include undercutting regional governors - taking away their seats in the upper house and dividing the country into seven administrative zones overseen by Kremlin emissaries - and pushing a law that would limit Russia's populous political spectrum to just two or three large parties.

Critics fear constitutional changes might curtail the human rights provisions of the Yeltsin charter, mandate longer presidential terms, or even abolish Russia's federal system of 89 regions and ethnic republics in favor of the seven Kremlin-run zones. "I would expect sweeping constitutional amendments by the end of this year," says Svyatislav Kaspe, an expert with the independent Russian Public Policy Center in Moscow.

Stacked in Kremlin's favor?

Alarm bells were triggered recently when a group of pro-Kremlin Duma deputies presented a draft law on convening a Constitutional Assembly. Russia's present charter stipulates that only such an assembly may change its fundamental provisions. But rules on organizing one are vague. The draft says the assembly should consist of 400 people: The Kremlin would send 100 hand-picked delegates, a further 100 would come from the now-appointed upper house, and 200 from the Duma. The draft's backers, a coalition of Communist, nationalist, and right-wing deputies, hope to pass it in the spring.

"This is how people who lack the power to change the basic terms of our Constitution are proposing to appoint themselves to a body that does have that power," says Sergei Grigoryants, chairman of the Glasnost Foundation, an independent human rights watchdog in Moscow. "There is no doubt that this is a Kremlin-backed scheme to create a tame assembly, which will then adopt the Constitution that is dictated to it," he says.

Even supporters of change are wary. "The Yeltsin Constitution was a very hasty document, and it has many holes and shortcomings," says Vil Kikot, a professor at the Moscow State Law Academy. "But in the present circumstances, it is our last line of defense for democracy."

A congress of 1,500 Russian human rights activists last week warned that the Kremlin strategy is to suffocate independent voices, stifle civil society, and impose a pragmatic authoritarianism. "I do not maintain that fascism is emerging in our country, but something like a Pinochet regime is being deliberately built here by using quiet technical methods," Sergei Kovalyov, one of Russia's most respected Soviet-era dissidents, told the meeting. "The Putin Kremlin sees society as too unruly, criticism as too destructive," added Mr. Grigoryants. "Putin's desire to reshape the constitutional order into a more authoritarian one is quite sincere. He sees a stronger state ... as necessary for Russia's modernization. We regard that as Russia's traditional poison."

Popular support for change

Few doubt, however, that the Kremlin's aims enjoy at least passive support among most Russians. "Even if the Constitutional Assembly were 100 percent elected by the people, it would probably adopt a very reactionary document," says Yelena Mizulena, a member of the Duma's legislation commission.

Some experts warn that constitution-building could become a populist substitute for long-term social and economic reforms. "[Putin] has already proven that he can get almost any law passed that he wants," says Alexei Kuzmin, deputy director of the Yabloko-linked Institute of Humanitarian and Political Research. "But the point is: In Russia, legislation changes nothing.

"It's our reality that's fearsome and needs to be changed."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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