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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Constitutions And Laws

Washington, 24 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin will soon propose a new constitution for his country, one some of his opponents have already dubbed "the nomenklatura constitution," highlights the complicated and sometimes problematic relationship between constitutions, laws, and political systems.

At an extraordinary congress of Russian human rights activists over the weekend in Moscow, various speakers reported that Putin has already approved a new draft constitution, one that various participants suggested would simultaneously increase his powers and undermine both human rights and the rule of law in the Russian Federation.

Because no draft is available, it is impossible to say just how democratic or undemocratic the new document may be. But the very fact that Putin is preparing one raises some questions about the meaning of constitutions in the Russian political system and also about the likelihood that any new document could play the role that constitutions are normally intended to play.

According to the dictionary definition, a constitution typically is a document containing the fundamental principles and rules which determine the operation of a state by setting limits on legislative action and executive and judicial behavior. A law, in contrast, is a rule adopted and enforced by the authorities within the scope set by the constitution.

Those definitions both derive from and apply to the Western and especially American experience. The U.S. Constitution has now been in force for more than 200 years, and it enjoys the kind of respect among both the governors and the governed that ensures that it does in fact set limits on actions by both and that there is every reason to believe that it will survive well into the future, with only relatively rare modifications.

But Russian constitutional history has been fundamentally different. Since 1917, first the Soviet and more recently the Russian authorities have adopted constitutions with remarkable frequency, and so closely have these "basic laws" been associated with particular leaders and their styles of rule that the documents themselves often have taken on the name of the leader behind them.

During the Soviet period, there was a Lenin constitution, a Stalin constitution, and a Brezhnev constitution, all of which proclaimed many rights and principles that the men whose names they bore ignored so totally that many in both the USSR and the West viewed them as little more than propaganda documents, with little or no relevance to legislative or executive action or to the rights of Soviet citizens.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian government made do with a modified Brezhnev constitution until the political crisis of October 1993 after which then-President Boris Yeltsin pushed through a document in December of that year, which many commentators immediately called the Yeltsin constitution because it was designed to help one man make the transition from communism.

Now, less than eight years later, Putin apparently is set to announce yet another constitution, one that many almost certainly will give his name to. That is especially likely because he appears set to use the document in much the same way as his predecessors, not so much as a set of fundamental principles governing the state but rather as a means of indicating the directions he wants to take Russia in.

Because of that likelihood, the Putin constitution is unlikely to acquire the meaning such documents typically have in established democracies, to place limits on his actions, or to survive for very long after his period in office. And for all these reasons, any new basic law he is able to have adopted is unlikely to enjoy the kind of respect that constitutions require if they are to be effective.

None of this means that Russia may not need modifications in its existing law or even a completely new document. As many legal analysts have pointed out, there are serious gaps and deficiencies in the Yeltsin constitution. And commentators are certain to suggest that many effective democracies, first and foremost Great Britain, do quite well without any constitution at all.

But rather it is to insist that any new Russian constitution, especially one prepared behind closed doors to fit the leadership style of the incumbent president, almost certainly will not become a genuine constitution in the normal sense of the word, however much its advocates try to claim it to be so. And that will make it all the more difficult for the Russian Federation to make the transition to "the dictatorship of law" Putin talks about so often.