Vyacheslav Volodin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the State Council, June 26, 2019. Photo by Dmitry Astakhov. Courtesy of Sputnik, Reuters, and Republic
What Russia Cannot Imagine
July 18, 2019
Any periodical would love to get their hands on a star author. Who even thought a few days ago that something called the Parliament Gazette was published in Russia? Yet State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has just published an article there entitled “The Living, Evolving Constitution.” Everyone who follows politics has read it and many have ventured to summarize it. Volodin praises the Russian Constitution and its spirit while arguing certain things in it should be amended.
This is not the first time Volodin has done this. Last year marked the Constitution’s twenty-fifth birthday. The speaker hinted that it was obsolete in parts. Valery Zorkin, Chief Justice of the Russian Constitutional Court, voiced similar thoughts, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev weighed in with a programmatic article entitled “The Constitution at Twenty-Five: Balancing Freedom and Responsibility.”
The little booklet keeps them up at night. They sense it is at odds with reality. They are eager to amend it.
Medvedev wrote about the possibility of amending the Constitution. The amendments were needed in order to “update the status of the authorities.” Don’t ask me what that means: the prime minister himself would probably not be able to tell you.
Zorkin spoke of “pinpoint” amendments aimed at restoring the balance between the executive and legislative branches. Nineteen years into Putin’s reign, the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court suddenly noticed the executive branch had brought the legislative branch to heel.
Volodin’s article has the same bent.
“In my analysis of the Constitution, I pay special mind to the lack of a needed balance in how the legislative and executive branches function. Discrete, pinpoint constitutional innovations might really be necessary in this case,” he writes.
Actually, the speaker has only one proposal: the Duma should have more levers for controlling what the government does.
“It is advisable to further elaborate the rules concerning the government’s accountability to parliament on issues raised by the State Duma, including the evaluation of the performance of specific ministers. It would also be a good thing (this is only my opinion) to further weigh the question of the State Duma’s involvement in selecting ministers in the Russian federal government,” he writes.
It is as if we have gone back to the early twentieth century, no? It was a romantic time. The public enthusiastically discussed “A Manifesto for Improving the State Administration,” published on October 17, 1905. The Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) had the upper hand in the first Duma, and Pavel Milyukov would soon take to the podium to demand an accountable government. Prince Sergei Urusov would soon make his famous speech.
“People with the educations of quartermasters and policemen and the convictions of rioters are deciding the country’s fate,” he said.
His words have lost none of their timeliness, to the woe of our poor fatherland.
No, the man at the podium is Vyacheslav Volodin, a well-educated intellectual whose mind is on a par with the pillars of the Renaissance. He wrote his dissertation about dispending feed to livestock, but his arguments about balancing the branches of government are no worse than what you would hear from a political scientist, although, of course, the irrepressible lover of bad jokes inside all of us would note the parallels between cattle and politicians.
Volodin is at the podium, so we must read between the lines. He could not care less about achieving a “higher quality of interaction and coherence in the government’s work.” The speaker has a different goal, one that is easily discerned.
The Eternal Present
Like everyone else who has spoken about possible amendments to the Constitution, the speaker is looking to the future. He is looking towards 2024 when the regime will have to figure out how to maintain Putin’s grip on supreme power. It would be unseemly just to reelect him one more time. You do not expect any of the folks occupying important government posts to worry about decency, but the issue does indeed bother them.
Political junkies are regularly excited by rumors of transition scenarios, some of them quite intricate. People in the know, citing anonymous but terribly reliable sources, suddenly claim that a State Council will be established.
They must have seen Ilya Repin’s famous monumental painting, which made an impression on them.
Ilya Repin, Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation, 1903. Oil on canvas, 4.4 m by 8.77 m. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Or they let slip that Russia and Belarus will finally be totally unified.
But the State Council—not the meaningless, powerless State Council that has convened since 2000, but a genuine, proper State Council that would replace all other executive authorities—still convenes only in Repin’s painting, while the would-be tsar of Belarus his own plans and his own heir. He even took him on a pilgrimage to Valaam to show him off to our would-be tsar and thus quash any funny ideas in the latter’s head.
And then Bloomberg, a source at we cannot sneeze, writes that the Kremlin is planning large-scale electoral reforms. Supposedly, in the 2021 parliamentary elections, 75% of MPs will be elected not via party lists but in single-mandate constituencies. United Russia’s candidates will run as independents. (We have heard this before.) The regime will have total control of parliament. (As if it does not have it now.). Putin will again lead the ruling party and be appointed the prime minister. The powers of the presidency will be curtailed. It will not matter who is elected to this clownish post because Russia will be run by the prime minister.
We have been through this before. There was no need to amend the Consitution. The regime did as it liked anyway.
Rumors spread by an international news agency are one thing, but rumors backed by a programmatic article written by the Speaker of the Duma are another. The picture comes into focus. The regime has come up with a plan, apparently. We can thus say with some accuracy what the future holds for us.
The future will be the same as the present, despite certain formal shakeups that have no bearing on the real lives of ordinary Russians and leave the regime’s domestic and foreign policies intact. The regime will undergo fundamental changes, as it were, but the same people will be in power.
What future lies in store for us? No future at all, a future as dull as the eyes of Russia’s leader.
The Ruling Dynasty’s Motto
On the one hand, all of this stuff is interesting, as it were. You feel like Sherlock Holmes, perusing a boring article with a magnifying glass and figuring out what it has to do with keeping Putin in power. You imagine how the Russian state machine will function after it undergoes a minor facelift. The prime minister will control both the parliament and the government while the president visits summer camps and publishes articles in small-circulation newspapers about what the world will be like in a hundred years. Medvedev would be great for the job, and this would solve the problem of finding another heir.
On the other hand, haven’t we been through this already?
The takeaway message is that none of these schemes accounts for regime change. Our powers that be can draw whatever blueprints they like showing one set of cogs engaging another set of cogs, setting into motion our mighty state, which churns smoke like the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and terrifies the rest of the world with its smell if not its military might.
What they cannot imagine is completely different people at the helm. This is what cannot be imagined in Russia at all.
Neither Volodin, his ghostwriters, and his commentators can entertain the thought power could change hands. Political power in modern Russia has nothing to do with procedures and institutions. You can dream up whatever procedures you like and mold institutions by the bucketful from dung and twigs. Political power in today’s Russia is about people, the small group of people, whose names we all know, led by Vladimir Putin.
Any imitation of change is permissible so long as it makes real change impossible. This is the perfect way of summing up Volodin’s article and political reforms in Russia, although “reforms” should be encased in quotation marks, which are the most important signifiers in Russian political discourse.
“Changing to prevent change” would be an excellent motto for the current ruling dynasty, a dynasty consisting of one man whom he and his entourage inexplicably imagine is immortal.
Moscow as a Mirror
Even yesterday’s loyal supporters see clearly what pass this dynasty has brought us to. They have no plans of winding up their act and exiting the stage.
What comes to mind is the slightly over-discussed topic, in recent days, of the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma. Moscow mirrors what happens all over Russia, and it is not a funhouse mirror. In recent days, authorities in the capital have flagrantly and impudently barred independent candidates from running in the elections. They have not attempted to hide the forgeries and falsifications they have used when “verifying” the signatures of voters on the petitions submitted by the candidates.
The independent candidates are young people who can sometimes seem too radical and sometimes seem a bit ridiculous, for idealists always seem a bit ridiculous. Oddly, however, they are open to dialogue. They are keen to accomplish something real in politics and bring about gradual changes in public life.
I wanted to write “perestroika” instead of “changes,” but the word has too much baggage, so the heck with it.
The people who run Moscow, just like the people who run Russia, cannot get their heads around a simple truth. The country’s only real defense, its only chance at survival (and this applies to everyone, including the political bosses) are these slightly ridiculous idealists, who are willing to pull up their sleeves, work, and talk to people. They could try and clean up all the messes the people who run things have made.
But the powers that be toss them out of legal politics like naughty puppies in a sneering show of force that demonstrates they do not understand that destroying room for legal politics is a road to ruin. They do not realize that in this serial’s next episode it will not be ridiculous idealists who take to the streets, playing volleyball at “unauthorized” protest rallies and waiting for the green light to cross the street during banned protest marches, but starved pragmatists whose program will consist of smashing windows and crushing skulls.
All of the tricky plans for keeping Putin in power will come to naught. There will be no Putin, and there will be no power. Maybe there will be an endless remake of the Donetsk People’s Republic, but there is no certainty even that much will happen.
However, by way of toning things down a bit and leaving my readers with a smile on their face, I will close by quoting from Medvedev’s article about the Russian Constitution, which I mentioned earlier.
“While recognizing and protecting human rights, the Russian Constitution limits the claims made on the defense of these rights by not recognizing as rights those that are at odds with Russian society’s traditional values. The idea of human rights is thus given a new interpretation in relation to other constitutions, marking out a particular, original, nonstandard approach to the way human rights are regarded.”
Now, what are you going to do about that?
Translated by Thomas Campbell