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Two Higher School of Economics professors explain how the Russian Constitution keeps democratization hopes alive

Vladimir Putin meets with judges on Russia's Constitutional Court, December 14, 2015
Vladimir Putin meets with judges on Russia's Constitutional Court, December 14, 2015

Promoting their new book, “Authoritarianism and Democracy,” Higher School of Economics professors Elena Lukyanova and Ilya Shablinsky spoke to Novaya Gazeta this week. In the interview, the two legal scholars argue that Russia’s current Constitution represents a “narrow democratic portal for the future transit to democracy.”

Lukyanova and Shablinsky reject the criticism that today’s Constitution is a “fake document.” “With great difficulty — overcoming many obstacles created deliberately by the state bureaucracy, including at the legislative level — incompletely, and often selectively, the Constitution nonetheless works,” the scholars say, “thanks to civil society, the European Court of Human Rights, the remaining independent media, and sometimes even the Constitutional Court.”

Lukyanova and Shablinsky nevertheless admit that Russia’s Constitution contains contradictory elements: chapters one, two, and nine establish civil rights and democratic foundations, while chapters three through eight “create the solid foundation for an authoritarian regime.” They attribute this split personality to the context of the December 1993 constitutional referendum, when the aftermath of the violent standoff with the parliament “dictated” a rigidly presidential form of government, despite Yeltsin’s personal commitment to human rights.

According to Lukyanova and Shablinsky, the “authoritarian bias” built into Russia’s Constitution boils down to (1) the president’s ability to appoint and dismiss the prime minister, without parliamentary approval, (2) the lack of direct elections for seats in the Federation Council, (3) the president’s power to constitute the judiciary, and (4) the president’s unilateral authority to determine the fundamentals of foreign and domestic policy. The two professors also say “creeping anti-constitutionalism” has eroded the rule of law in Russia, referring to pressure on the independent media, obstacles to the creation of political parties, and the “monster shadow government above the government” that is today's presidential administration. These phenomena, argue Lukyanova and Shablinsky, have occurred “outside the framework of the Constitution,” but still undermine its effectiveness.

Russia has avoided outright totalitarianism (apologies to Masha Gessen), thanks to Putin’s personal qualities as a leader, Lukyanova and Shablinsky say. “Putin, of course, is a supporter of authoritarian methods (the “power vertical”), but he isn’t cruel and he doesn’t enjoy suppressing his opponents — for him it’s not the goal, but just the cost,” the scholars told Novaya Gazeta.

What does the future hold? Lukyanova and Shablinsky conclude optimistically that Russia could follow the pattern set by the Soviet Union, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, where long-running authoritarian dictatorships were suddenly abandoned, when subjects finally realized the regime was an obstacle to their nation’s development.

Read the full interview (in Russian) here at Novaya Gazeta.