oDR: Opinion

Russia’s political and constitutional drama

As Putin prepares to extend his rule once again, the future for human rights in Russia looks bleak.

Rachel Denber
16 March 2020
CC BY 4.0 Kremlin.ru. Some rights reserved

Last week, President Vladimir Putin continued the endless speculation about what role he will play in Russia after his term is set to end in 2024. As Russia’s lower house of parliament debated constitutional amendments, in a sequence of obviously choreographed, pseudo-spontaneous political drama, a proposal emerged to reset the clock on his presidential terms to zero.

The impact? Putin’s presidential terms served so far would not be counted, and in effect term limits would not apply to him. Should Russia's Constitutional Court approve of this arrangement, the way will be clear for Putin to run for president in 2024… and again in 2030. Polls have Putin’s popularity rating at an all-time low, which adds fuel to speculation of more manufactured drama in store regarding his plans in the lead- up to the 2024 - and then, why not, to the 2030 elections.

Meanwhile, the future for human rights in the coming years looks bleak.

I can’t help remembering that other piece of choreographed pseudo-spontaneity back in 2011, when then-President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, then prime minister, announced their decision to have Putin run for a third term, and for the two of them to switch places. That move triggered months of unprecedented mass protests, which ended in police beatings, arrests and prison terms.

Soon after Putin took the helm for his third term in 2012, the Kremlin unleashed a sharp, multi-year crackdown on civil society that has only continued to gather momentum throughout Putin’s rule. The crackdown has sought to silence critics, dismantle, marginalise and control Russia’s independent nongovernmental organisations, put draconian limits on public gatherings, and rein in and control the internet. At the same time the Kremlin has legislated adherence to its version of “traditional values” through laws that suppress free expression, blatantly discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, criminalise “religious offense,” and decriminalise first offenses of domestic violence.

This unrelenting record is the disturbing context for a number of other proposed constitutional amendments. A draft amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman continues the trajectory of homophobic discrimination the Kremlin has stoked since the 2013 anti-gay “propaganda” law, which limits positive representation of “non-traditional sexual relations.”

In another proposed amendment, the government would aim to uphold “traditional values” through “unified state policy.” There are ample grounds for concern that this could be used to further counter women’s rights, including by thwarting efforts to adopt a law against domestic violence.

Yet another proposed amendment, which would enshrine the state’s duty to “create conditions conducive to children’s spiritual and moral development, as well as to educate them in patriotism” might also, in other contexts, seem acceptable. But in recent years Russian authorities have used the protection of children as a pretext to justify the discriminatory anti-gay “propaganda” law, to threaten criminal charges against someone for even talking to children about the fact that he’s gay, to censor music, and to intimidate parents whose children attend unauthorised protests.

Likewise, the draft amendment introducing the “protect[ion of ] historical truth,” implying the country’s monumental sacrifices during the Second World War could be innocuous had a law not been adopted in 2015 introducing a totally disproportionate, maximum five-year prison term for such things as “denying facts” related to the Red Army’s actions during the war or for desecration of “military glory” symbols. In today’s climate, that law could be used to silence any reasonable, factual debate.

A new proposed article gives the federal government jurisdiction over ensuring online safety for individuals, society and the state. Again, fair enough. Except that the government has, through a series of recent laws, allowed authorities to directly censor content and even disconnect Russia’s internet from the world wide web, without telling the public what they’re doing or why. These laws have also given security services easy access to user data, traffic and communications.

The Russian language remains the state language, but has now been singled out as the “language of the state-forming people.” Two years ago, parliament adopted a new law ending mandatory instruction in native languages for republics and other areas in Russia’s multiethnic state that have two or more official or state languages. The new amendment could send a further signal to disincentivise the study of minority languages, even in regions where the titular language is supposed to be used on a par with Russian under local constitutions. Other proposed amendments that would curb the independence of local self-government at the regional level could also serve to weaken minority language rights.

To be sure, many of the 206 draft amendments are rights-neutral, even in today’s context. Some could be very positive, and are very popular with the public, such as the guarantee of a minimum wage that’s equal with the cost of living, an annual indexing of pensions and social welfare benefits, and the right to health insurance. Another specifies the government’s responsibility to coordinate the delivery of “affordable and high-quality medical care.” This resonates acutely against the backdrop of people’s struggle to maintain their right to effective medications for their cystic fibrosis, cancer and other conditions, after recent government policies forced them to switch to generic drugs.

There is no reason why these potential positives come at the cost of other rights.

Ultimately, the impact - positive or negative - of these amendments on rights in practice could depend on the courts. So the lack of independence for Russia’s judiciary, which has been a concern for many years, takes on a new level of seriousness. The president’s new authority, under the draft amendments, to dismiss the constitutional court chair will do nothing to allay these concerns.

Another possible blow to rights protection in practice is the draft amendments’ enshrining the Constitutional Court’s responsibility, declared in a 2015 law, to decide whether Russia should implement the decisions of international tribunals and bodies. These would include rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, United Nations human rights bodies, the International Court of Justice, and the like.

The Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, rammed through the entire pack of amendments at record speed, passing it in second and third readings in just two days. The Federation Council, the upper chamber, passed it on the same day. Regional parliaments have already approved the changes. Putin has said the Constitutional Court should review the amendments; this review is now under way. Following that they’re scheduled to be put to an ad hoc nationwide referendum, presumably in April, to legitimise them.

A group of Russia’s prominent human rights defenders are asking The European Commission on Democracy through Law (known as the Venice Commission), an advisory body of the Council of Europe, to review many of the draft amendments. Time is short. But such a review would yield a helpful, thorough, authoritative analysis that could be used in the effort for more, not less rights protection in Russia.

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