The Federation Council today signed off on the ratification process of the constitutional amendments that will extend the presidential term of office to six years and that of Duma deputies to five. And what a whirlwind ride it has been!
President Dmitry Medvedev first proposed the innovations in his address to the Federal Assembly on November 5. Duma deputies mulled the portentous innovations for a couple of weeks and duly raised their hands on November 21. The Federation Council signed on on November 26, sending the measure to the regional legislatures for their consideration. The approval of two-thirds of those bodies was required for the changes to become law.
On November 27 -- one day after the Federation Council voted! -- Kabardino-Balkariya became the first region to OK the changes. On December 16, 60 of the country's 83 regional legislatures had approved the changes, passing the two-thirds mark and by December 18, all 83 had unanimously said, "Let's go!" Today -- December 22 -- the Federation Council approved those approvals, and all that is left is for Medvedev to sign on the dotted line. Around the Russian Federation in 47 days.
By comparison, the inefficient Americans took just less than four years to pass the 22nd amendment to their constitution, the one that barred a person from being elected president more than two times. That change was introduced in Congress on March 21, 1947 and became law on February 28, 1951. Or consider the 25th amendment, which established the order of succession if the president cannot complete his or her term of office. That one was proposed on July 6, 1965 and ratified on February 10, 1967.
But Russia isn't the only country trying to improve its democracy by toying with presidential terms. Washington ProFile reports that 26 countries have done so since 1992. Fourteen of them -- paragons like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Uganda, and -- now -- Russia -- have loosened up restrictions on how many times a person can be elected president and/or have lengthened terms of office. Similar changes are now under way in Azerbaijan, as well.
Only France, for some reason, is swimming against this tide. In 2000, the French reduced the presidential term from seven years to five, arguing that seven years is too long and a shorter term would be "more modern" and allow citizens to vote more often. Medvedev, to the extent that he explained his reasoning on extending the term at all, argued that leaders need time to implement their decisions so that voters can judge them on their results rather than their promises.
(Incidentally, gazeta.ru spoke with one of the authors of Russia's constitution, Sergei Shakrai, about the term changes and other constitutional modifications under discussion. That interview is available in English here.)
But Russia's sprint to the finish may not be as smooth as Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hoped. The liberal Yabloko party today issued a statement declaring that the Federation Council's final seal of approval today is illegal. The approval was based on the federal law On the Acceptance and Coming into Force of Amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. That law specifies that the Federation Council must give the regional legislatures one full year to ratify the amendments and must consider their ratifications at its first session following the expiration of that one-year period. There is no exception to this clause in the event that enough legislatures approve the changes before the deadline or even, as in this case, if all legislatures do so.
According to Yabloko, the law was written this way (in 1998) "in order to avoid haste and accepting amendments to the basic law of the country without due discussion." It gives regional legislatures enough time to reconsider their approvals or disapprovals, allowing a democratic deliberative process to unfold at the regional level. The provision that regional legislatures could change their minds on approval could potentially be important (maybe not in Putin's Russia, but theoretically....) in regions holding legislative elections during the approval year. Nine regions of Russia will be holding such elections in March.
Of course, the Kremlin will have its way on this issue, but Yabloko could make trouble. The party has vowed to contest this point through the Russian court system and, most likely, would not balk at taking it to the European Court of Human Rights. That court is already considering cases that could potentially nullify the 2007 Duma elections (won't happen, but it could....). Having a high-visibility international forum like the Strasbourg court render judgment on such key aspects of the Putinist political system is an embarrassment the Kremlin certainly would have preferred to avoid. But the ghosts of Russia's 1998 lawmakers are still haunting the country's political process.