#21 - JRL 2009-149 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
August 12, 2009
New Rules for Rough Play
A New Law Has Russia’s Neighbors Worried about War, and Parliamentarians Concerned about Further Consolidation of the President’s Power

By Albina Kovalyova

The President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev has introduced a new bill to the Russian Parliament that would revise the current Law on Defense, and would broaden the conditions for Russia’s military action abroad. The introduction comes as a consequence of last year’s August war with Georgia, and sends a worrying message to the CIS countries, some of which already have a strained relationship with Russia.

The current Law on Defense allows Russia’s armed forces to take military action outside Russian territory only in response to aggression that is directed toward the country and poses a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. The revised law will allow Russia to use military force “to return or prevent aggression against another state, to protect citizens of the Russian Federation abroad, to fight piracy and to ensure the safety of the shipping industry,” the outline of the bill on the Kremlin Web site states.

The president made it clear that the reform to this law has to do with the military conflict with Georgia. “It is tied to the well-known events of last year,” Medvedev told the Interfax news agency. The announcement has been timed to coincide with the one year anniversary of the war, along with the appointment of the new Head of Military Training of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Valery Yevnevich.

Some may be forgiven for thinking that these moves are meant as a warning to Russia's neighbors. Anatoly Tsiganok, the head of the Center for Military Prognosis of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, believes that the new revision to the Law on Defense is a demonstration of Russia's power to the Caucasus and to Ukraine. “This law is only being introduced in order to be able to bring the military to fighting mode if any of the Russian peacekeepers are attacked by Georgia in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, without the say of Parliament,” he said.

As a result the revision is likely to upset the international community, which is already starting to worry about what these revisions could imply. “When the bill was first introduced by Dmitry Medvedev, I immediately got worried telephone calls from colleagues in Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine,” Tsiganok said. Russia used the precedent of protecting its own citizens to justify the fighting in August of last year, and the issue of citizen protection now raises the question of what will constitute such protection. Will it be used as an excuse to attack other countries if some misfortune befalls a Russian national there?

Opinion is generally divided between those who, like Tsiganok, believe that there should be no law giving the president the right to use military action abroad, and those who think that such powers may be justified in certain circumstances. The State Duma Deputy and Deputy Chairman of the Security Committee Gennady Gudkov believes that such a law may be necessarily to give the president a certain power of protection against the threats of foreign military attacks and terrorism. However, the existence of the law does not necessarily imply that it must be put into action. “The question of how we will act on the law is a question of future political situations and the relationship that we have with our neighbors and other countries,” he said.

Another debate surrounding the Law on Defense is that of the president's role. Many are concerned about the increasing power that the president will have to make such serious military decisions without consulting the Parliament. “We are constantly rolling toward total monarchy as the constitution and the law get replaced by the will of the monarch. This has led to various catastrophes and cataclysms several times now, and I am absolutely against this kind of model of government,” Gudkov said.

Tsiganok agreed. “When you talk about a law that would allow Russians to fight abroad, I do not think it acceptable that this right is given solely to the president. I believe that the decision to use force abroad should be made only by the Parliament,” he said.

There are also problems with the Russian constitution, which is vague on the procedures for responding to acts of aggression against the country. It does not seem to be clear who would be authorized to make decisions ­ the Parliament or the president, who would only inform the Parliament of what he had already decided and possibly even acted upon. This absence of a coherent code of conduct needs to be rectified. “The constitution must be developed thoroughly to take into account the various cases that may arise,” Tsiganok said.

Although it is not yet clear how the law will influence Russia's future actions, the decision to amend the existing law in this way may lead to discontent among other CIS countries. Georgia and Ukraine are particularly worried about Russia’s intentions, and this news will certainly increase their apprehension.

The mounting tension in the Caucasus was further intensified on Wednesday, when the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, while on a trip to Abkhazia, announced plans to spend around $500 million on military bases and the building of a protective border guard system in the region.

Meanwhile, Russia's problematic relationship with Ukraine this week was further jeopardized by Medvedev in an address to the Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. In his video blog, Medvedev criticized the Ukrainian authorities for hindering the development of cultural and economic relationships between the two countries and taking “an openly anti-Russian position in relation to the military attack on South Ossetia by Saakashvili's regime.” Medvedev repeated the accusation that weapons used to kill innocent civilians and Russian peacekeepers were Ukrainian, and said that there would not be a Russian ambassador in Kiev until the relationship between the two countries improved.

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