Kuressaare, November 19 – Speaking to regional journalists in Izhevsk yesterday, President Dmitry Medvedev asserted a broader right to modify the Russian Constitution than any post-Soviet leader has done, providing what one Moscow paper called “a quite unexpected explanation” for that claim.
In reporting the president’s remarks today, “Kommersant” quoted him as saying that “the Constitution is something handmade and not a set of canonical principles given from above,” adding that he “had begun to think about the correction of the Constitution as much as five years ago, naturally without thinking that [he] would have a chance to do something about it.”
Medvedev continued by saying that “the legal rights of citizens must be stable, but the arrangement of the political system, despite its importance, is [only of] secondary importance.” And it is because of this conviction, he said, that he had called for the extension of presidential and Duma terms of office (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1074935&NodesID=2).
The Russian president discussed what he described as three other possible changes in the Russian Constitution. First, he said that he opposes having Duma and presidential elections conducted on the same date as many proposed last winter and continue to suggest now (Ibid., and www.polit.ru/economy/2008/11/19/region.html)..
Second, he dismissed suggestions that his call for government officials to appear before the parliament for questions changed the nature of the state. His proposal, Medvedev said, “must not in any case be evaluated as a step toward a parliamentary republic. For us,” he suggested,” this would be like death.”
And third, Medvedev angrily denounced calls for returning to a system of elections for regional leaders. He said that the current system of appointment was not only “the best” but “the only possible one,” and any change is therefore “impermissible,” a rebuke to those, like Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who have suggested just that.
If the leaders of federation subjects are uncomfortable with the current arrangements, the Kremlin leader continued, “they can hand in their resignations to me at any time.” But he followed that declaration by saying that at the present time, he did not plan to propose any other changes in the Constitution.
Even as Medvedev was insisting that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution must remain in place and be observed, Russian officials were acting in ways that violate that document’s proclamation of the right of citizens to assemble and present their grievances to those who govern them.
On Monday, officials in Izhevsk tried to prevent a meeting of 1500 people in front of the building where the Russian president was to come. Participants called for the immediate replacement of Udmurt President Aleksandr Volkov and a change in the firm that provides heat for their apartments (www.rufront.ru/materials/4921860F4640A.html).
Officials had indicated that they did not want the demonstration to take place and put a large number of extra militia officers in the streets. They did not stop the meeting but did pursue two journalists there, an action that prompted organizers to cancel plans for a second protest yesterday (mariuver.wordpress.com/2008/11/18/otkaz-ot-mitinga/#more-3281).
While these actions highlight the unfortunate reality that Russian officials frequently ignore constitutional rights, Medvedev’s assertion of a broad right to change most of the features of the Russian Constitution at will not only reflects a dangerous survival of the Soviet past but also points to serious problems ahead.
In Soviet times, almost every communist leader wrote his own constitution, reducing the significance of those documents both absolutely – they were seldom observed in any case – and relative to laws and decrees which were often changed and frequently not in conformity with the provisions of the various constitutions.
Medvedev’s remarks yesterday suggest that he sees the current Russian Constitution in much the same way as his Soviet predecessors saw theirs, as an ideological statement that is not supreme relative to other laws but rather as “a basic law” open to change almost at will and in much the same way as other legislation.
And to the extent that reading of his view is correct, Russia under Medvedev is not as committed to observing a law-based state as many have thought but rather is continuing the retreat begun by Vladimir Putin from a constitutionally-defined political system that Boris Yeltsin at least had supported.