By Andrea Chandler
On 15 January 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise announcement in his annual address to Russia’s Parliament. Following a recitation of the country’s recent successes and near-term goals, Putin devoted a sizeable portion of his speech to a plan to introduce significant changes to the Russian constitution. On its face, the proposed changes seemed to expand the role of the government and to link the government more closely to the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma. The language used by Putin suggested a proposal to strengthen the political system’s checks and balances. Debate immediately arose about the speech’s significance: was it paving the way to a greater diffusion of political power, or a path to creating an even more hierarchical system? It is difficult to evaluate Putin’s intentions until more details become apparent about the constitutional reform. But the evidence suggests that this is an effort to further concentrate presidential power and to move even further away from liberal democracy.
To provide context, let us examine the essential existing features of the Russian constitution. It was adopted in 1993, having narrowly passed a referendum during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The document is, in many respects, a very democratic constitution. The citizenry are to choose the president in elections and there is a bicameral parliament that contains elected representatives of the people as well as an upper house (the Federation Council) where regions are represented. The constitution contains an extensive list of citizen rights and a Constitutional Court that rules on the constitutionality of laws and government decisions. On its face, then, the president’s power is checked by parliament and an independent judiciary; regions and localities also have self-government bodies in what is purportedly a federal system.
If the system is so democratic, what has enabled Putin to amass so much personal power?