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Welcome to the Union of Republics of Russia A group of Russian researchers have proposed a new constitution for the post-Putin era. Meduza breaks down its key points.

Source: Meduza

The Institute for Global Reconstitution (IGRec) — a research initiative founded by a group of Russian academics and journalists — has published its draft proposal for a new Russian Constitution. The document’s creators, who believe their project will prove useful after Russia’s current ruling regime loses power, include sociologist Grigory Yudin, political scientist Evgeny Roshchin, and philosopher Artemy Magun. “In some aspects, it might seem as if the authors are making ‘mistakes’ from the perspective of generally accepted liberal law, but in fact, all of the points of the Constitution have been carefully verified and undergone critical discussion by lawyers,” reads an explanatory note accompanying the document. The project, one of the first attempts to conceptualize a new structure for Russia after Putin, has generated widespread discussion among the Russian opposition and beyond. Meduza highlights some of the most interesting (and, in some cases, controversial) parts of the proposed constitution.

What does the proposed Constitution have in common with the current one?

Under IGRec’s new Constitution, Russia is still a federation, but all of its subjects have the status of republic.

The document declares Moscow to be Russia’s capital, but it’s unclear in what capacity — as an autonomous republic, a component part of some larger republic, or a federal territory.

Russian remains the official state language. Republics, like under the current Constitution, can establish additional state languages on their own territory.

Russia still has a president, a government, a Federal Assembly, a Supreme Court, an Accounts Chamber, and a General Prosecutor’s Office, though their powers and relationships to one another are fundamentally different.

Russians who hold foreign citizenship remain barred from serving in official government positions, including both appointed and elected ones.

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All power to councils and assemblies

In the Union of Republics of Russia, legislative parliaments of all levels — including Citizens’ Councils at the municipal, Republican Assemblies at the regional, and the bicameral Federal Assembly at the national level — play a key role. In addition to forming executive bodies, these parliaments independently appoint judges (in municipalities and republics) or participate in their appointment (on the federal level).

The President of the Union is elected by the Chamber of Republics — the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly (analogous to the Federation Council under the current Constitution) — from among its deputies. The President’s duties consist primarily of handling foreign policy and national defense.

The Chairman of the Government is elected by the Chamber of Citizens — the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly (analogous to the State Duma under the current Constitution) — from among its deputies. The Chairman is responsible for domestic policy and forms the government from other deputies of the Chamber of Citizens.

A new level of government and a property requirement

The authors of the new Constitution also propose creating a new tier of government at the lowest level. These “basic units of local self-government” tasked with managing “the common affairs” of small groups of neighbors will fall into two categories:

  • House Committees, which “manage the common affairs of residents of an apartment building,” and
  • Housing Association Committees, which “manage the common affairs (of owners or tenants) of neighboring private houses united on the basis of one settlement, or at the rate of one hundred houses per Housing Association.”

This level of government effectively introduces a property requirement for participation. Here’s how it works: Residents can elect between three and 10 representatives to a committee. No more than one-third of the seats, however, can be held by tenants; in other words, each committee must consist primarily of homeowners. Citizens who are not homeowners or tenants can neither serve on these committees nor vote for their members.

These requirements directly affect the formation of the next-lowest level of government: the municipal level. That’s because half of the seats in each municipal council are held by members of House Committees and Housing Association Committees. To a lesser extent, the property requirement may indirectly affect the formation of Republican Assemblies and the Federal Assembly, which are partially made up of members of municipal councils and Republican Assemblies, respectively. In theory, a House Committee member could progress through all levels of government and become president of the country within just a few years.

30 republics instead of 80+ regions

Russia’s current Constitution, which was adopted in 1993 but has since been thoroughly amended, initially recognized 89 federal subjects. That number later fell to 83 after some regions merged together. Today, the document again lists 89: in 2014, lawmakers added Crimea and Sevastopol after Moscow occupied and annexed the peninsula, and in 2022, they added the four other Ukrainian regions that Russia claims to have annexed.

The new draft Constitution’s authors don’t explicitly say how many subjects will make up the Union of Republics of Russia, but it’s easy to calculate. Article 3.2 of the document states that the Chamber of Republics — the Federal Assembly’s upper chamber — will consist of 120 deputies. Further down, the same article says that “[each] republic is represented in the Upper Chamber by four deputies.” This means the Union will consist of 30 republics in total.

It’s unclear whether this change suggests the authors are anticipating a large-scale consolidation of regions or if they envision only a third of Russia’s current subjects belonging to the Union of Republics. In any case, they clarify in the document’s explanatory note that Russia’s current regions will have the right to not join the Union of Republics of Russia:

[We emphasize] that Russia’s regions have the right not to join our new federation at all. This has been excluded from the constitution as it pertains to the founding process, but we view it as wholly obvious.

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The lottery system and ‘cumulative voting’

The proposed Constitution explicitly bans the use of electronic voting in elections and referendums.

The document introduces the concept of “cumulative voting,” to be used in republic-level and federal elections. This allows voters to distribute their votes between multiple candidates, with each voter given as many votes as there are seats in their particular multi-seat electoral district. These votes can be given to a single candidate or divided between multiple candidates. This method allows minority groups to concentrate their votes on specific candidates, thereby increasing their chances of being elected.

The new Constitution also introduces a lottery procedure for electing representatives:

Lottery is a public procedure that selects citizens from a pool of candidates based on a random or quasirandom algorithm. The drawing procedure must be transparent and controlled by the authorities of the Union with the participation of voluntary observers.

This lottery is the method by which members of House Committees and Housing Association Committees are selected to join Citizens’ Councils (at the municipal level) and by which Citizens’ Councils members are selected to join Republican Assemblies (at the regional level).

Rotations every four years

The cycle of forming government bodies through elections and lotteries for most levels takes place every four years. At the municipal level, half of the members of Citizens’ Councils will be subject to replacement every two years; in other words, representatives will still serve four-year terms, but these will be staggered.

The President of the Union and the Chairman of the Government can each serve for a maximum of one four-year term.

Protections for usurpation of power

To prevent the President of the Union or the Chairman of the Government from usurping power, the proposed Constitution creates a new federal body called the Council of Ephors. The Council’s sole job is to call a federal referendum to remove the President or Chairman of the Government from office if they “commit actions aimed at the usurpation of power.”

The Council of Ephors consists of five people “from among highly authoritative citizens who are recipients of international awards in science, civic engagement, culture, and art.” Ephors are nominated by the President and confirmed by both chambers of the Federal Assembly. They remain on the Council for 20 years, which means their terms overlap with five to six different Presidents and Chairmen of the Government.

Media censorship and freedom of speech

The authors of the proposed new Constitution list freedom of speech as one of the three fundamental freedoms of citizens in the Union of Republics of Russia. These freedoms cannot be restricted by “referring to other freedoms,” they write, even if the Constitution is amended. If the federal government resorts to “despotic rule” by “trampling on” citizens’ fundamental freedoms, the Constitution explicitly gives citizens the right to “resist despotism as a last resort.”

The document also creates a Committee for the Protection of Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of Speech. It’s not clear from the text how this body will protect the freedom of speech; it only states that the Committee will monitor “the actions of government bodies at all levels in matters of regulating public meetings” and “the actions of public authorities, as well as commercial and non-commercial organizations, to maintain a balance between non-disclosure of secrets and freedom of speech in the interests of the community.”

At the same time, the proposed Constitution calls for state censorship of the media at both the regional and national levels. This is to be handled by a new Federal Committee on Mass Media Affairs, which is tasked with monitoring “the principles of balanced representation of political interests, fair and impartial coverage of events and processes in the media, and the distinction between fictitious and realistic content.” This committee will have the power to “[make] decisions on suspending a media license” unless overruled by a court decision, and will also participate in “the appointment of heads of leading federal media.”

The explanatory note adds:

Under the tyranny of Putin, censorship is exercised by the President’s administration and through the introduction of new laws prohibiting “disinformation” and various offensive words. Rather than completely eliminate this control (and thus delegate similar restrictions to media owners), we propose transferring it to a public body and placing it within the framework of a traditional understanding of freedom of speech and critical discussion.

Preventing the annexation of Ukrainian territories

The procedure outlined in the draft Constitution for admitting new republics into the Union is designed to safeguard against the schemes Russia has previously used to annex Crimea and the four Ukrainian regions it claimed as its “new territories” in 2022.

Firstly, only U.N. member states are allowed to apply for membership in the Union of Republics of Russia. This means that the Union could consider a membership application from Belarus, for example, but not from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Palestine.

Secondly, after a membership application is approved by the Federal Assembly, the question of whether to admit a new republic must be put to a nationwide referendum, where it must receive support from a majority of citizens who have the right to vote. In other words, if voter turnout is 50 percent plus one voter, the new republic must receive 100 percent of the votes cast.

A peaceful path to secession

Unlike the current Russian Constitution, the proposed new Constitution includes an official procedure by which republics can peacefully secede.

The secession process can be initiated by a republic’s leadership or by its citizens. In the second scenario, proponents of succession are required to gather signatures from at least 15 percent of that region’s voters and 15 percent of deputies from Citizens’ Councils.

The ultimate decision about whether to secede must be made through a republic-wide referendum. For succession to take place, it must receive support from more than 70 percent of the republic’s citizens (not just those with the right to vote). If it fails to garner the required number of votes, the republic will remain in the Union.

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Explainer by Meduza. Translation by Sam Breazeale.

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