On Its 25th Birthday, Russia’s Constitution Is Still Worth Defending (Op-ed)

The main result of the political crisis was the informal, but virtually unanimous, agreement that power could not be taken away by force. It is a blessing that Russia did not go the route of Yugoslavia to resolve its internal and external problems.

The Basic Law, given its content and the way in which it was approved, looked like the winners’ constitution. But who were the winners? Certainly not Russian democrats, who even then were not an independent force, but a pillar of support for Yeltsin’s rule. It might appear that the constitutional crisis was crowned with the victory of the reformist forces. But the reformers’ opponents, leaving aside the leaders of the October revolt, had not been defeated or expelled from political life. Not long after, yesterday’s opponents had reorganized and returned to politics.

More important still, democratic changes were replaced by a “course of reforms.” The transition to a market economy had been given top priority. But the market itself— without the division of property and power, without real competition for the country’s most important assets — was inadequate and defective.

Still, the 1993 Constitution is the best and most modern set of laws to guide Russia in the past century. Its authors can still take real pride in the first two chapters: on the fundamentals of the constitutional system and on the rights and freedoms of man and citizen.

But the norms contained in those chapters are essentially declarative. There is no one to guarantee human and civil rights in our society and state. Whenever the interests of individuals clash with those of the state — and there are many such cases — those of the state are given preference. When the contradiction of interests is especially obvious, the state adds to, or violates, the existing legislation and constitutional norms. As before, the Russian people live not according to the constitution, but under it.

Once again, the age-old Russian question arises: What can be done?

Over the years, some amendments to the constitution have been discussed by the State Duma. But none have led to big results. And when the vector of Russia’s development changed in 2000 and political counter-reforms began, the constitution didn’t pose any obstacle.

The only real amendment that has been made to the 1993 document was initiated in 2008 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev and backed by the Duma. It stated that the president, which already had almost unlimited power, would be elected every six, not four, years.