Thirty Years of Russia’s Constitution and the Path to Autocracy

By Alex Avaneszadeh, Project Manager of the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program

To what extent does Russia’s constitution play a role in the Putin regime’s consolidation of power and the country’s path to autocracy? On December 12, 2023, the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program held a panel discussion marking the thirtieth anniversary of Russia’s constitution. The conversation examined the transition of power from the Soviet Union to an independent Russia, the government’s relationship with its administrative regions, and the political implications of Russia’s constitutional amendments. The talk was joined by Jeff Hawn, PhD Candidate in International History at the London School of Economics; Irina Busygina, Research Fellow at the Davis Center at Harvard University; Maria Snegovaya, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Stanislav Stanskikh, Visiting Scholar at The Fletcher School. 

Prior to Soviet collapse, the parliamentary election of March 4, 1990, though not an election for the USSR parliament, resulted in the declaration of Russian sovereignty in the Soviet Union. Correspondingly, In his opening remarks, Hawn described Russia’s declaration of independence in the 1990s as being riddled with “chaos and confusion.” 

“The congress went on to accelerate democratization, created a constitutional commission, a presidency and a vice presidency. But there was also a good deal of structural problems because it was a hybrid democratic socialist system and 86% of the deputies were members of the Communist party of the Soviet Union,” Hawn said. In spite of these issues,  the parliament was democratic and elected in a fairly free election. 

Hawn places the blame of Russia’s early authoritarian trajectory on the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. “Yeltsin was a man who had a lot of political legitimacy as a product of his emergence as the opposition leader to Gorbachev. He never exercised leadership to push the democratic project except for when it was in his own interest. He used congress as a ladder to climb up. The 258 amendments to the 1978 constitution were adopted because Yeltsin would not bring forward a full draft. When there was power to be had, he was unwilling to share,”  Hawn noted.

In describing the political implications and role of Western expertise in Russia’s constitutional process, Stanskikh also highlighted that “Russia’s political system needed to adapt to new realities,” as it was entering a new era of its existence in a post-Cold War order.

The Soviet academic background of the Russian constitutional scholars posed a significant challenge for the drafting of the constitution. They needed to form a constitution that aligned with international standards and best practices of western democracies and rule of law. Yet ultimately, the new constitution did not prevent Russia’s authoritarian future, prompting the question of why Russian drafters needed international legal expertise in the first place. 

Stanskikh provided the following key explanations: “to legitimize the constitutional process and to integrate Russia into Western intergovernmental human rights organizations, particularly in the Council of Europe.” In 1994, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe recognized the Russian Constitution as democratic, leading to Russia’s membership in the organization. However, in 2021, the Venice Commission issued a critical opinion on the process of the 2020 amendments to the Russian constitution, for which the parliament of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution urging the international community to no longer recognize Putin’s legitimacy as president beyond 2024.

Stanskikh concluded his remarks on Russia’s constitution by stating that, “it would be great if the West assisted Russia’s democratic forces with such a draft-making process and to provide some kind of professional legal expertise.”

Contrary to some of the arguments made by other speakers on the constitution’s impact on Russia’s authoritarianism, Busygina instead emphasized the significance of central-regional relations regarding Putin’s grip on power.

“Is the constitution to blame? No. It is not the constitution at all. In federations, if the constitution is a complete contract, there would be no space for change in center-regional relations, to adapt to new challenges both domestic and external. Second, Putin did not cancel federalism in the constitution when he had the power to do it. The regions are stakeholders in the regime; they profit from it. This is about safeguarding federalism. We do not need a better constitution. The constitution is good enough,” Busygina explained.

In essence, Busygina argued that political interests drive the country’s governance. She mentioned that the constitutional court exists to resolve disputes between the central government and the regions; but the fact that all political parties supported the war is notable. 

“How come all the regions support the war with no exception? It is because of Putin’s multilevel coalition,” she said. As previously noted, the regions and those part of Putin’s inner circle benefit from the regime.

On a similar note, Snegovaya criticized “the tendency to present the 1993 constitution as Russia’s original sin.” More so, the issue is Russia’s nomenklatura, a group of Soviet elites that dominate under Putin’s regime. 

“The constitution is just another institution and a product of the political system. You take the old Soviet institutions, change the names, and transfer it to new post-Soviet Russia with barely any change in composition. To the extent that you can speak of any alteration, it is the replacement of the top politburo with nomenklatura,” Snegovaya stated.

As a result, she proceeded to point out that today’s reality reflects a lack of a vibrant civil society in Russia that is able, and willing, to push for change. 

She concluded her statement, having underlined that “as long as the situation in Russia is the same, we’re unlikely to see any radical change.”


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