Moscow May Soon Do More Than Simply Restore the Death Penalty

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 100


Executive Summary:

  •  New discussions about amending the Russian Constitution to allow for the death penalty have stimulated calls for more fundamental changes in the future, including dropping the document’s commitment to multinationalism and the existing non-Russian republics.
  •  In the wake of recent terrorist attacks, doing away with the death penalty is extremely popular in Russia. That would require a referendum, and others appear to be hoping that they can piggyback their ideas on those for restoring the death penalty.
  •  Whether Putin will accept any of these ideas is uncertain. If he decides to have a referendum on the death penalty, he is likely to call for other changes as well.

As has been the case after every terrorist attack during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s time in power, the attacks on the Crocus City Hall in Moscow in March and on churches and synagogues in Dagestan more recently have sparked calls for ending the moratorium on the death penalty (see EDM, March 26, June 25). Moscow has officially observed the measure since 1996 (Interfax, July 1). This time, these calls have acquired greater significance as the Russian Constitutional Court argues that such a step cannot occur without an amendment to the constitution. That, in turn, cannot happen without a referendum, a position Russian politicians have seconded (Vedomosti, June 26;, June 29). If such a referendum is held, it would almost certainly involve other constitutional changes as well. This was the case when Putin sought to amend the constitution in 2020 to allow him to remain in office well into the 2030s. Simultaneously, he included other changes to Russia’s basic law (see EDM, July 8, 2020). The likelihood that there will be more terrorist attacks in Russia in the near future means that pressure is building on the Kremlin for a referendum on the death penalty and other issues (RBC;, July 1).  

Precisely what those constitutional changes might entail is uncertain, as the Kremlin has studiously remained above the current fray (Vedomosti, March 25). At least some changes may come in an unexpected form—namely, proposals for how Russia should be reformed after Putin leaves the scene. This is precisely the area where some of the fundamental problems now facing the Russian Federation are being discussed most fully. That is even more likely because these alternative visions of the future are driven by many of Putin’s same concerns and because of the criticism these proposals have received. Such commentaries suggest the authors of these ideas have either gone too far or not far enough, thus giving Putin and his team the possibility of selecting from them without appearing to have accepted any of the proposals as such (The Moscow Times, June 26, July 1).

The most comprehensive of these opposition constitutional proposals has been offered by three Russian social theorists of the Moscow-based Institute for Global Reconstitution, Artemy Magun, Grigory Yudin, and Yevgeny Roshchin (Moscow Institute for Global Reconstitution, accessed July 2). The proposal calls for a wholesale restructuring of the Russian federal system that would eliminate existing republics and put 20 to 30 super regions in their place, which the authors say would provide the basis for genuine federalism. As two of the sharpest critiques of their ideas note, the three commentators, who ostensibly seek to democratize and decentralize the country, ignore the concentration of power and wealth in Moscow that would vitiate the impact of any redrawing of the map mentioned above. Such an act could trigger disaster for the country and thus continue rather than depart from Putin’s longstanding approach.

In a Moscow Times commentary on July 1, retired Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev pointed out that, in recent days, “ever-more documents are being published that represent responses to the sacramental question: how are we to organize Russia?” He added that a future referendum could well be called upon to address these constitutional issues (The Moscow Times, July 1). Earlier, on June 27, independent Moscow commentator Sergey Shelin made similar arguments, though he was even more critical. Shelin suggested that redividing the country will not help in the current situation and may be extremely dangerous, provoking precisely those citizens the Kremlin wants to ensure it controls. He asserted that the center should instead focus both now and in the future on developing municipal institutions where real democracy is far more likely than at the regional and republic levels (The Moscow Times, June 26).  

Such criticism might seem to preclude the Kremlin’s use of these ideas. Shelin’s critique, however, shows why that might not be the case. It also highlights how Putin could use a referendum to change the Russian system in ways that, on the surface, would resemble some of the opposition’s proposals. At present, the Russian Constitution makes the regions and republics the most important elements of the federal system, something the Institute for Global Reconstitution’s proposed replacement constitution continues. Nevertheless, a referendum could elevate the status of urban entities formed from above as done up to now and as the institute proposes for the future relative to existing federal subjects. That would be fully consistent with Putin’s current policies but represents perhaps a fatal blow to federalism as such (Window on Eurasia, May 6). In short, the Kremlin leader may draw on the arguments of his opponents and their critics in pursuit of his own centralizing agenda.

Putin has an additional reason for moving in this direction. In recent months, the federal subjects have been undercutting his migration policies by adopting very different approaches. The metropolises and the Muslim republics have remained welcoming to migrant workers from Central Asia, while the predominantly ethnic Russian regions have increasingly moved to restrict their entrance and limit their activities. According to Moscow analyst Aleksandr Shustov, this divergence is increasingly dividing the country and threatens its stability (, June 22).  

Putin could well reject amending the constitution, confident that he can ignore its provisions when it suits him and use repression to keep the federal subjects in line. However, as the recent experience with migrants shows and as proposals akin to the Institute for Global Reconstitution’s reminder, such tactics alone do not always work. Consequently, the Kremlin leader may see constitutional changes that would reduce the status of the republics and regions while elevating that of the municipalities as being in his interest, which is certainly consistent with his current policies. Additionally, winning more support by allowing for the reimposition of the death penalty might be in the Kremlin’s interest. He may also welcome the chance to have the Russian Constitution named after him, much as Stalin did in the 1930s. Thus, just as was the case four years ago, focusing on only one issue—be it term limits in 2020 or the death penalty now—obscures Putin’s broader agenda, an agenda only constitutional changes can ensure will be put in place. That, at the very least, is what opposition proposals for the country and their critics may prevent.