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Moscow Times
December 11, 2001
Constitution's Strength Is in Immutability

Constitution Day provides a good opportunity for reflection on this most fundamental of documents and cornerstone of the Russian political system. Moreover, comments regarding constitutional amendments made by Sergei Mironov just after being elected speaker of the Federation Council provide further food for thought. He proposed extending the presidential term from the current four years to five or even seven years, reviving an idea originally floated last year during the presidential election campaign, which back then received qualified support from Vladimir Putin.

Russia's first post-Soviet Constitution had a somewhat turbulent birth in 1993, following President Boris Yeltsin's bombardment of the Supreme Soviet into submission and its adoption by a referendum whose legitimacy has been called into question.

However, for all Russian democracy's manifest failings, the Constitution has provided an element of political stability. The polity that is sometimes referred to as "super-presidential" is indeed weighted heavily in favor of the president, but nonetheless the Constitution does establish the fundamental separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary -- the bedrock of any democracy.

This is in stark contrast to the unworkable Constitution inherited from the Soviet Union, which in essence provided for two centers of executive power (the presidency and the Supreme Soviet) and should take its fair share of the blame for the bespredel that prevailed between 1992 and 1994.

Moreover, those doomsayers who saw the Constitution as paving the way for full-blown authoritarianism have clearly not been vindicated.

One of the strengths of the Constitution is its extremely complicated amendment procedure (evidenced by the total absence of amendments in the eight years of its life). This has ensured stability of the rules of the game and discouraged sitting presidents from trying to tinker with it.

Mironov's proposal (whether or not motivated by the desire to show gratitude to the president for his support) in this respect deserves to be consigned to the rubbish heap of history.

There is no analogy to support the argument advanced by several Kremlin-linked political commentators that a longer presidential term will serve to smooth Russia's difficult transition.

On the contrary, regular elections are a crucial part of the democratic process and the threat of being turfed out of power is one of the few checks on graft and corruption. Furthermore, any attempt to tinker with the Constitution is fraught with the danger of the slippery slope: Once you've gone to the effort of setting the amendment process in motion, why stop at just the presidential term?

Lurching in this direction will bring Russia closer to Kazakh and Belarussian practice, and take it much further away from the Western democratic norms that Putin apparently strives for.

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