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The Week In Russia: The Not-So-Basic Law And The Goal In Syria


Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have announced a cease-fire agreement this week amid tensions between the two countries in the Syrian province of Idlib.

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The Russian Constitution is often called the Basic Law. It's about to get less basic.

Before the end of April, the post-Soviet constitution will be will be altered more substantially than at any time since its adoption in 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin pushed it through two years after the Soviet collapse.

It will include changes set out broadly in a January address by Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, who remains in power in part thanks to one of the biggest changes made to this day – the extension of the presidential term to six years instead of four in 2008.

These alterations mainly involve shifts in Russia's power structure: rebalancing the authority held by president, parliament, and prime minister, handing a meatier role to a largely symbolic body called the State Council.

And these changes are widely seen as a way for Putin to keep a hold on power after 2024, when the current constitution bars him from running for a fifth presidential term – or at least to have the option of staying in power if he wants to.

Putin signaled on March 6 that he would not use the State Council as a vehicle to maintain power – but he did not rule out other potential pathways, and the guessing game is likely to go on.

In fact, his remarks about term limits and the need for stability may only deepen speculation that he is plotting to remain at the helm.

Then there are the so-called "social" amendments, which really means economic amendments dealing with pensions, wages, and such. These were also outlined by Putin in January and will add a level of detail most constitutions lack -- for better or for worse.

Echoing existing law in some cases, they are widely seen as a way to attract voters, and votes, when the constitutional changes are put to a nationwide ballot -- kind of a legislative version of the free food on offer to draw Soviet citizens, and Russians after them, to polling places for elections whose results have often been a foregone conclusion.

And now there is a slew of proposed amendments that were ostensibly conceived by officials, lawmakers, clerics, and ordinary citizens -- but received Putin's imprimatur when he submitted them to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on March 2.

Crowded Constitution

All the proposed alterations are virtually certain to pass a crucial "second-reading" vote in the Duma and end up back on Putin's desk within a week or so.

He is expected to sign a law approving them on March 18, the anniversary of the day Russia considers that it absorbed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and the popular vote that would put them into effect is scheduled for April 22.

This third group of proposed amendments addresses such sensitive and potentially divisive issues as god, ethnicity, and same-sex marriage.

They reflect a turn toward social conservatism that analysts say Putin has both pushed himself and harnessed over 20 years in power – and particularly since he returned to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister.

But their wording as leaked by ruling-party lawmakers suggests that Putin is acting in a cautious or even calculated fashion, going just as far as he thinks he can without risking a big blowup or backlash.

Take the move to put in a mention of God, for example. The Russian Orthodox Church called for the inclusion of such a reference. And there it is: wording that says Russia will preserve "the memory of our ancestors, who bequeathed to us [their] ideals and faith in God."

But what does that really mean? In formal or legal terms, possibly nothing.

The current constitution says that "Russia is a secular state" and that all religious associations "shall be equal before the law – and there has been no indication that this will be jettisoned. Unless that changes, it is hard to imagine what formal effect the new wording could have -- even on the dominant Russian Orthodox Church or other faiths.

Safety In Numbers

Another addition will apparently be wording describing ethnic Russians as the "state-forming" group. What that would change in legal terms, if anything, is unclear. And unless there is additional wording on this issue and that of religion, the changes may be largely symbolic -- a cosmetic change that might please millions -- and displease millions of others – but would have little formal effect.

Yet another change would state that marriage is between "a man and a woman."

Here, Putin seems more comfortable with unequivocal wording. He has spoken out against same-sex unions in the past, and gender identity has been one of his go-to themes for snarky remarks to captive audiences. Plus, public opinion is such that he can score points with those who believe he is too liberal while facing little or no risk of negative consequences.

Russian President Vladimir Putin poses for pictures with a member of the public. (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin poses for pictures with a member of the public. (file photo)

But while Putin may be wording the constitutional changes in a way that protects him and those who help keep him in power, members of groups that could be marginalized by the changes – or further marginalized, in many cases – may not be so safe.

One of the main criticisms of some of the laws passed under Putin -- governing counterterrorism efforts, for example, or regulating the Internet -- is that they are open to selective application and used as a cudgel against perceived opponents of the authorities at all levels.

Laws also send signals to ordinary people in addition to government officials. After Putin signed a law in 2013 that banned the distribution of so-called gay "propaganda" among minors, activists said violence against members of the LGBT community increased.

And even if vague language about God and ethnicity has little formal effect, minority groups that it appears to leave out may be wary that it could encourage bias against them -- both from those who hold power and those who do not hold power but happen to be in the majority.

'On Standby' In Syria

If Putin moves cautiously at home, going as far as he thinks he can and then halting until he sees a new opening, he also tends to do so abroad -- even if it may not seem so.

The cease-fire agreement he reached with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Syria's Idlib province on March 5 with Turkish may represent one such moment: a pause to regroup before pushing much further toward the goal.

The "goal for Putin…is to install [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] fully as a Russian client, and to keep Turkey as weak ally - to prevent a Turkish realignment with the West," foreign policy analyst Ulrich Speck wrote on Twitter. "And then to move on to Libya, with Syria as a template."

But with the deal reached in Moscow, Speck wrote, Putin "slows down the reconquest of Syria because he doesn't want to alienate Erdogan -- who is deeply concerned about new refugee waves."

In an article in Al-Monitor, Maxim Suchkov wrote that deal "to bring an end to fighting in Idlib puts the saga over this issue on standby," adding that the fundamental disagreements that Moscow and Ankara have over Syria have yet to be overcome."

Putin, essentially, may be buying time in Syria. Which is what many believe he is doing with the constitutional amendments at home.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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