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Debates underway in Russia whether Constitution needs amending

December 11, 2012, 16:50 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, December 11 (Itar-Tass) — Does Russia’s Constitution adopted in December 1993 need amending or not? This is the gist of the discussion underway in Russian society on the eve of Constitution Day, marked on December 12. Over the past 19 years the fundamental law has undergone little change. There has been only one amendment to the content. The terms of office of the president and the legislators have been prolonged. Traditionally, the calls for amendments came from the Opposition. Now even the president and the head of the Constitutional Court envisage such a possibility. In the meantime, experts have been calling for compliance with the fundamental law in the first place, while for the ordinary Russians it is of ever smaller importance.

At a meeting with the heads of the State Duma’s factions on November 30 President Vladimir Putin declared it might be possible to introduce direct elections of the upper house of parliament – the Federation Council, which, in his opinion, is not allowed under the current version of article 95 of the Constitution.

At the end of last week Constitutional Court chairman Valery Zorkin said: “Some provisions of the Constitution may well be changed, if the need for this is ripe.”

The leaders of the parliamentary opposition, in the first place, the left-wingers, would like to turn Russia from the presidential republic into a parliamentary one. Or at least to step up the parliament’s control of the government. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov on Monday again called for “repairing the Constitution”, which, he said, was adopted “by a third of the votes – 33 million of the 106 million following the violent crackdown on parliament” and placed all powers “in the hands of one man.”

However, most experts believe that limiting the president’s powers now would be irrelevant. It is far more important to monitor the observance of the Constitution.

“Experience shows that even the institutions that are established under the Constitution do not work effectively and at full capacity,” says liberal politician Irina Khakamada, quoted by the daily Moskovskiye Vedomosti. In her opinion the great dependence of the regions on the central authorities, “the absolute lack of transparency and arbitrariness of the penitentiaries and the investigative authorities” are absolutely unconstitutional.

Public Chamber member Yelena Lukyanova says that “over the 20 years there has piled up an awful lot of regulatory acts that have largely distorted the essence of the Constitution.”

Speculations about amendments to the Constitution have come to the forefront regularly. But changes to the content were made only once over the nineteen years. In December 2008 at the initiative of President Dmitry Medvedev corrections were introduced to article 81 (the prolongation of presidential powers from four years to six) and to article 96 (increase in the term of office of the State Duma members to five years).

The discussion of what model of the republic is to be chosen is the most profound theme of the declared amendments, says the president of the fund Respublika, former USSR Surpeme Soviet member, participant in the Constitutional Conference of 1993 Sergei Tsyplyayev in an article published by the daily Vedomosti. Under the Constitution Russia is the presidential-parliamentary republic. The expert believes that even this model for Russia is “a piece of clothing that is still too loose.”

“The country is unable to go beyond the bounds of the primitive social technology - “the chief and his tribe.” It is being used literally everywhere. The tribe’s members instinctively decide who is the chief, and they follow his orders, and not objective laws.

The parliamentary republic will not help, he said with certainty. “Make a symbol out of the president, and the prime minister will become an irreplaceable leader, and also the chief of the ruling party.”

About what is to be changed to the existing constitution Tsyplyayev said that one of the tasks Russian society has been unable to resolve is ensuring timely and routine non-violent change of the political and managerial elite.

Task number one is specifying part three of article 81 of the Constitution: “The same person must not be allowed to take the post of Russia’s president for more than two terms in a row.” A new interpretation has been proposed “an unlimited number of presidencies terms, but each one should be no longer than two terms.” Tsyplyayev believes that it might be possible to alter the article’s wording in this way “… no more than two consecutive terms.”

The second task, he believes, will be the restoration of the four-year election cycle instead of the six-year-long presidency and five-year-long term of office for the State Duma members, introduced in 2008.

The expert addressed the people of Russia on the eve of Constitution Day with this call “Do respect your Constitution.”

In the meantime, as opinion polls have indicated, the number of people who know what day is marked on December 12 is shrinking with every year. Whereas in 2010 75% of those questioned by the Levada center remembered this, in 2011 the rate was down to 74%, and this year, to 71%. Also, 29% of the respondents believe that laws must be observed even if they run counter to the Constitution (in 2010 that view was shared by 21% of the respondents, and in 2011, by 30%).

This is not surprising, because “most citizens of Russia seldom have to deal with the Constitution, and have a very vague idea of what it is all about,” says Levada Center Deputy Director Alexei Grazhdankin, quoted by the daily Kommersant. Also, Constitution Day stopped to be a day off in 2004 (it remains in the calendar only as a memorable date), he recalled.

The people do not care about the Constitution, says senior researcher at the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Leonty Byzov, and “the constitutional system in Russia is just a bright shopwindow,” because in reality we have “not a republican system, but a quasi-monarchic one, where the sovereign is elected by the elites on the basis of a contract not written down anywhere.” He believes that this version of the Constitution is unrestricted, it was imposed on society, but if a referendum is called, society will again vote for any amendments.

The general director of the national public opinion studies center Valery Fyodorov believes that for the people the Constitution “is not a sacred cow or an icon.” “The Constitution has not become a supreme value, like the flag, state emblem of anthem. It does exist, it is not a hindrance to anyone, and this is good. But if the authorities say that something must be changed, and this sounds convincing, the people will promptly get accustomed to this,” the sociologist said, adding that the people had supported the idea of prolonging the presidential term that Dmitry Medvedev has initiated.

There are certain things in the Constitution that require change, but “the current Constitution can be changed only for the worse – we shall have a state ideology, the Church’s onset against the state and some other negative phenomena,” a member of the Yabloko party’s political committee, one of the authors of the Constitution Viktor Sheinis, said with certainty.