A number of post-Soviet republics are already in the process of making constitutional changes to augment the power of the presidency. Could Russia be next?
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the opening session of the newly elected State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, in Moscow, Oct. 5, 2016. In his speech, Putin said the State Duma must help make Russia stronger. Photo: AP
Across the post-Soviet space, countries are re-evaluating their national constitutions. Citing the changing global geopolitical situation, they are finding new ways to consolidate power at the very top and minimize any chances for instability within the state.
For example, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan have recently held national referendums and amended their constitutions. Kyrgyzstan will arrange for a public vote in the near future, and Russia will probably follow suit.
Local politicians and experts explain this trend by the need to strengthen the so-called “vertical of power” and create conditions that can help these countries adapt to the changing geopolitical reality. That “geopolitical reality” includes the increased risk of Islamic terror, territorial disputes and the economic uncertainty brought on by volatile changes in commodity prices.
At the same time, representatives of the opposition and some Western experts believe that current presidents are unfairly trying to extend their terms by occupying their seats for extended periods of time. For example, they are assuming the role of prime minister or introducing other structures that can substitute for the institution of the presidency.
Reassessment of these basic governing mechanisms goes against democratic principles, they suggest. Most prominently, they seem to go against the idea of the separation of powers.
Examples from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan
For example, the Venice Commission sharply criticized the referendum on the Introduction of Changes into the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan held on Sept. 26. Still, the population overwhelmingly supported amendments to 23 Articles of the Constitution and the addition of 6 new Articles. International observers announced that the vote was transparent and went smoothly with no violations.
The most significant changes in the Constitution of Azerbaijan involve new positions of the First Vice President and Vice President appointed and removed from office by the President. If the President leaves office early before a new head of state is elected, the authority will be passed on, not to the Prime Minister as it used to be, but to the First Vice President. Vice Presidents are guaranteed immunity, and they have the right to enter into intergovernmental and interstate agreements.
In addition, voters approved a presidential term increase from five to seven years, elimination of the age limit for presidential candidates and the reduction of the minimum age for parliamentary candidates, from 25 to 18 years. The top government official's authority was expanded to include the right to initiate early presidential election and dissolve the parliament.
Two weeks earlier, the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, signed a revised version of the Constitution that increased the presidential term to seven years and removed the age limit for presidential candidates. Tajikistan passed similar amendments.
Their neighbor Kyrgyzstan is also on the verge of changes. It might hold a referendum in the beginning of December. Almazbek Atambayev, the President of Kyrgyzstan, appears to be interested in the position of the head of the cabinet. He thinks that the Prime Minister and the parliament should be granted more authority and wants to create constitutional foundation to promote adequate responses to new threats and challenges.
Possible changes for Russia as well?
As for Russia, so far no one is talking about changing the Constitution, but the media occasionally takes the pulse of the people on the issue.
The main argument is that the Russian constitution was adopted under first Russian President Boris Yeltsin, promotes Western values and is based on the American model, just like all constitutions of sovereign states on the post-Soviet space. Nowadays, though, some of its provisions are preventing Russia from following its own unique path. There is little doubt that the Kremlin has considered the potential implications.
Speculation is amplified by Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent shuffle of the country's top political tier. Over the past two years, dismissals and appointments have involved Russian Railways, Presidential Administration, Foreign Intelligence Service, Speaker of the State Duma, Children's Ombudsman, Ministry of Education, Federal Security Service, Ministry of Internal Affairs and the military. Possibly, soon to come are further changes in the government, including the position of the Prime Minister.
Some experts argue that the Kremlin seeks to galvanize the State Duma and restore public faith in it, especially since the parliamentary election on Sept. 18 went smoothly and was virtually unnoticed and hardly criticized by the Western media. The ruling United Russia party improved its positions by gaining a constitutional majority, which will streamline the legislative process.
Under Western governing standards, the removal of limitations on presidential candidate eligibility, extension of the presidential term and granting the president the right to dissolve the parliament go against the core principles of representative democracy. However, recent events have shown that these principles are not necessarily fair depending on the circumstances. Unification of national legislation with European legal standards does not always work.
Several countries in the post-Soviet space have proven that frequent change of power in strict compliance with the Constitution often leads to an abrupt shift that engulfs all spheres of political and public life and may result in the termination of trade deals, change in foreign policy direction and, thus, total political anarchy and administrative paralysis.
In the stable European and American political systems, the change of president or the composition of parliament does not bring about radical transformations, and a large portion of the society may not even notice the difference. That is why in the West election campaigns often emphasize a candidate's character, personal life and statements made since high school graduation. This is exactly what can be observed in the current presidential campaign in the U.S. But ultimately this is all part of a political show because nothing actually rests on personality.
The two-party system is working without fail, so be it Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton - nothing will change dramatically for average Americans. True, their insurance payments may go up or down; abortion, same sex marriage or the right to bear arms may or may not be outlawed, but overall, this will not be a life-changer because the system will not allow it.
However, economic reforms under the pressure of international sanctions, low oil prices and devaluation of the national currency cannot succeed without stability. This is also a prerequisite for the implementation of efficient domestic and foreign policies, especially when facing threats from radical groups and international terrorists, dealing with unresolved territorial issues or participating in an armed conflict outside national borders.
The system in the West took decades to develop, while modern Russia and the countries in the post-Soviet space have a very different history. Still, they have to face the same global challenges.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.