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History as a battleground: What’s next in Russia’s constitutional reform?

Earlier this year, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin proposed a range of sweeping constitutional changes to ensure a favourable power transition scenario for the country’s leadership. The reform would also allow Kremlin-linked historians and policy advisers to introduce an alternative, politically advantageous narrative of the Second World War, as the past takes on increased significance in legitimising the regime.

February 18, 2020 - Anastasia Starchenko - Hot Topics

Meeting with the working group on drafting proposals for amendments to the Constitution. (CC) http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62776

Speaking in his annual state-of-the-nation address on January 15th 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a number of sweeping constitutional amendments in a move that many experts believe marks his intention to shift to another position of authority in 2024 when his current term as president expires. He followed up on his call for constitutional amendments by submitting proposed changes to the State Duma (Russia’s lower house of parliament), which unanimously adopted the draft bill in the first reading on January 23rd. Although the bill was scheduled to face its second reading on February 11th, Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Duma, said this would take place no sooner than late February or early March. However as much as one may speculate on regime change in Russia, Putin’s obscure and rather contradictory constitutional agenda makes one thing clear: he may step aside from the presidency, but he will remain at the country’s helm for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, immediately after giving his address, Putin signed a decree ordering to establish a working group to discuss and draw up the constitutional changes. Among the 75 members of the working group, which includes a diverse array of politicians, scientists, and public figures, only 11 have a legal background. As of early February, the commission has received as many as 300 amendment proposals to be added to the state’s constitution. While the group’s members propose renaming the position of head of state to “supreme leader”, other proposals from the “public” define the social institution of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, suggest adding a mention of God into the preamble, and introduce a constitutional recognition of Russia’s historical status as “victorious power” in the Second World War. Even if these amendments do not resonate with the wider public or find an official approval now, one may gain a sense of the agenda that the Russian authorities are working towards and come to an understanding of the Kremlin’s ideological approach.

Russian constitutional identity

The commission’s composition already hints at key ideological trends in upcoming changes. The group’s members include Nikolai Doluda, Ataman of the All-Russia Cossack Society who was awarded the Defence Ministry medal “For the Return of Crimea” and named as one of those responsible for the abductions of Crimean Tatars by Crimea SOS an NGO, as well as Russia’s infamous writer Zakhar Prilepin, a vocal supporter of the Donetsk People’s Republic and a Deputy Commander of one of the armed groups since 2016.

In an apparent attempt to surround the reform with an appearance of a wide public discussion, the decree has appointed, among others, two-time Olympic champion Elena Isinbaeva, actors Vladimir Mashkov and Aleksandr Kalyagin, astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, pianist Denis Matsuev, Director of the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky, as well as State Tretyakov Gallery Director General Zelfira Tregulova.

Senator Andrei Klishas, a co-chair of the working group, had previously authored a number of infamous legal packages targeting individual rights and freedoms. His bills initiated a clampdown on “fake news, “media that are foreign agents”, outlawed the act of “insulting the authorities”, and attempted to introduce a “sovereign internet”. Being considered for change appears to be article 13 of the Russian Constitution which stipulates that “no ideology may be established as state or obligatory one”. Mosfilm studio Director General Karen Shakhnazarov, another “expert” within the commission’s ranks, has often appeared on Russian state channels repeatedly arguing in favour of a unifying state ideology, modelled on the concepts of Soviet ideals, however distorted or elusive they were. “In my point of view, the rejection of Soviet state ideology was a catastrophe for Russia, since the Soviet ideology gave the multinational country a certain supreme idea, which cemented the entire structure”, Shakhnazarov admitted.

Earlier last year, Taliya Khabriyeva, the second co-chair of the working group and Head of the Institute of Legislation and Comparative Law under the Government of the Russian Federation, claimed a large-scale discussion should reveal “genetically inherent” values of Russian society to formulate a national ideology, with a joint effort of legislators, sociologists, and philosophers. “Russian thinkers have already done the basic work for us, we know what those values are… These are spirituality, collectivity, patriotism, acute rejection of social injustice… special identification with the state as an integrating society foundation”, she stated during a Constitutional Court conference on May 14th last year. According to the commission’s experts, there is already a consensus on at least three topics: the preamble would reveal the significance of Russia’s cultural heritage, uphold the need to counter “historical falsifications” of the so-called Great Patriotic War, and highlight the special importance of civil society. “The set of values we aim to define in the preamble will determine if the amended constitution will be adopted and how much public trust it will gain”, says Khabriyeva. Having obtained an opportunity to amend Russia’s fundamental federal law, these individuals are unlikely to resist the temptation to rewrite the country’s liberal constitution of 1993.

Kremlin’s new official history

There’s nothing new about Russia’s leadership instrumentalising memory politics in favour of domestic and foreign policy objectives. Since the annexation of Crimea and the start of military aggression in Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin designed a new ideological offensive seeking to achieve a greater social cohesion through a memory battle with the West. As Europe approaches its 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Russian authorities have taken several vocal steps in projecting its carefully designed neo-Soviet historical narratives of the sacralised “Great Patriotic War” and the Soviet role in the defeat of Nazi Germany at the cost of Central Eastern European states, such as Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states.

Earlier last year, Putin criticised the “Eurocentric” revision alleging the Soviet responsibility for the outbreak of the war. He insisted on an alternative version, according to which the war began with Japanese military intervention in China in 1937, not in Poland in 1939, leaving the Soviet aggression against Poland and the Baltic states out of sight. According to Senator Aleksey Pushkov, a member of the Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building, the victory in the Second World War has to be reflected in the preamble of the federal constitution. “I would note in one way or another our victory in the Second World War, our status as a victorious power, because this defines our existence: both domestic and international”, Pushkov commented in January.

To a foreign observer, such a move should not seem entirely nonsensical for two essential reasons. In 2014, the country’s criminal code was amended to ban “wittingly spreading false information about the activity of the USSR during the years of the Second World War”, hence criminalising any official revision of the Soviet role in the war and curbing a critical historical reflection on the new ideological formula. Today, while the focus of the constitutional reform has shifted to ideological postulates, the past once again takes on an increasingly significant role in legitimising Russia’s regime. Backed by a strong nostalgia for the Soviet era, shared myths and interpretations of war in Russia’s fading “collective memory” do not look artificial from the perspective of its perennial search for a cohesive national identity. Unlike the ideas of common origin, belief or language in a federation with a multitude of ethnicities and religions spread across 21 republics and occupied Crimea, wartime myths work in support of mass mobilisation and legitimisation of the regime vis-à-vis the West. For now, it remains to be seen whether a vote on the constitutional changes will side with Putin’s historical revisionism as a founding myth of Russia’s modern identity.

Anastasiia Starchenko is a postgraduate student of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. She has a BA in Law from the Ukrainian Academy of Banking and a BA in International Relations from Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia. 

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