President Vladimir Putin may preside over a special assembly to rewrite Russia’s 1993 constitution.
The prospect of a wholesale revision of Russia’s basic governing document is an unexpected by-product of the successful campaign to transfer power from the regions to the federal government. The regional chief executives and legislative leaders who form the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, were so decisively beaten in that campaign that they have seized on constitutional reform as a way to salvage something from the wreckage.
Since his inauguration just three months ago, Putin has created seven super-regions, headed by his appointees, to ride herd on the 89 sub-federal governments with elected leaders. He pushed through a bill reorganizing the federal parliament to exclude elected regional officials from its membership, effective at the end of next year. He has gained the power to throw elected regional leaders and legislatures out of office, if federal courts find them in violation of federal statutes. In his pocket is a bill that would let governors similarly dismiss mayors and town councils; that bill he coyly has not signed.
During negotiations over these changes, Putin agreed to establish a State Council in which the regional leaders could engage the Kremlin. But the concept was left undefined. One Kremlin source envisions an advisory body of twenty members only, perhaps including members of the Duma (parliament’s lower house) and representatives of business or other sectors of society. Regional leaders with grander notions, like Tatarstan’s President Mintimer Shaimiev, reacted to this denigration of their role by insisting that the State Council be constitutionally recognized–implying creation of a constituent assembly that could reshape the country’s political institutions. Putin, with his zest for organization, will not let such an opening go unexploited.
The shift in power from the regions to the center is so far on paper only. In carrying out his counter-devolution, the president must move carefully. Regional differences are great and regional leaders often have strong political support and strong legal claims. In Tatarstan, for example, Mintimer Shaimiev points to a 1994 treaty (as the document is called) between Tatarstan and the Russian Federation to defend his republic’s unique laws and policies on language, nationality, and trade. In Moscow, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov defends the city’s presumably unconstitutional registration requirements, similar to the “pass laws” in apartheid-era South Africa, as vital to the effort to suppress crime. Putin is unlikely to risk his stature by using his new powers to dismiss popular leaders like Shaimiev or Luzhkov, even if their governments ignore federal law. But a constitutional convention, especially one ostensibly initiated by the regions, could clean the slate of these anomalies without a pitched political battle.