On November 16, a draft of the Federal Law on the Constituent Assembly was submitted to the State Duma. Does it carry any weight? If it does, why? The public uproar is understandable. The reason why it has been extensively covered by anonymous Telegram channels and other media is more or less clear as well. The general concern is that the upcoming election will bring constitutional reforms, either on the eve of the election or immediately after. Considering that the definition of election implies a certain agenda, a certain vision of the future, even if the main goal of the campaign is to convince people that change is unnecessary and it is best to leave everything as it is, I will repeat once again that the very nature of the electoral process requires some sort of hoopla. Consequently, even though no actual change is welcome, the political class cannot but suspect that certain things will be reformed, after all.
So, what could be changed? If replacing the incumbent in out of the question – although this option has been mentioned quite often lately – they might change the rules. For instance, one of the suggestions is to eliminate the post of prime minister, making the president head of government and turning Russia into a superpresidential republic, like the USA. Essentially, the positions of president and head of government become one. Or, on the contrary, let us make the president an honorary Deng Xiaoping and establish a new position, whatever it may be, for his younger, more vigorous potential successor. Or revive the post of vice president. In other words, let us invent something eye-catching. Or restore monarchy in Russia yet another time, which is one of the most persistently recurring ideas – a retrogressive, never-ending monarchy that always resurfaces at some point.
When movie director Vladimir Bortko, member of the Communist Party, submitted the bill, people started paying attention. In essence, the bill is not much to speak of. After all, it is common knowledge that a bill proposed by an individual MP hardly ever packs a punch. A telling sign that a bill stands a chance of promotion is a large number of high-profile cosponsors, such as four parliamentary party leaders in the best-case scenario, four parliamentary party representatives, or the chairman of the relevant committee, backed by his deputies and committee members (which applies to highly specialized bills). Alternatively, an ominous legislative practice takes place, dubbed «mass grave» by State Duma deputies: everyone is forced to sign the bill, either the majority party or the entire house of parliament, in which case the bill collects about 350 signatures.
The first time they pulled this stunt was during the readings of the so-called «Dima Yakovlev Bill,» which contained amendments to the legal procedure of adoption. (Translator's note: Introduced in 2012, the Dima Yakovlev Law is a federal law that bans U. S. citizens from adopting Russian children, among other things.) Initially, they planned to pass its provisions as a set of minor amendments to the second reading of a completely different bill, but later they opted for maximum publicity. They have resorted to this trick a number of times since then. This was how the Russian «foreign agent» bill was passed, to become the eponymous law. In other words, if a bill is proposed by an individual MP, who is not the chairman of a relevant committee promoting an urgent initiative up for review within three days – for instance, when the budget committee chairman proposes a specific amendment during budget hearings, – if this is not the case, what we normally see is a personal publicity stunt. Naturally, fellow deputies are hesitant to increase their colleague's publicity because everyone wants their own share of publicity. If deputies start adding their signatures to back a certain bill, it is an evidence of commotion. As of today, we have not witnessed anything of the sort. However, truth to be told, not much time has passed since November 16. For now, Deputy Bortko is on his own.
Anyway, what is the Law on the Constituent Assembly per se? It is a draft of a federal constitutional law. It has to be passed because the Constitution mentions it; that is, the Constitution mentions the Constituent Assembly, but this concept does not have any legislative basis. As a result, many initiatives have been proposed in this regard. Starting from the early sessions, a total of seven proposals have been submitted, if I am not mistaken. Each of them was either revoked by the movers prior to the first reading or rejected in the first reading. In particular, the current speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, proposed one. His bill was rejected, but he had already left the position of deputy to become Deputy Chief of Staff at the Presidential Administration. This is just one example. Essentially, the issue is relevant, but there is no bill to match it.
The Duma has a number of similar recurrent items that hardly ever leave the agenda. Occasionally, someone remarks, «It's time we passed a bill on it.» For instance, such has been the fate of amendments to the Law on Parliamentary Investigation. Where are they? Why have they not been passed yet? Or the long-rumored «law on laws» – let us pass a bill on the procedure of review and adoption of federal constitutional laws; it looks like we need one, after all. Or let us introduce a new law on the Federal Assembly, which does not exist at present either. Or one for daredevils: «Why is there no mentioning of the Presidential Administration in the current legislation?» A pregnant pause. Its sole legislative basis is a set of presidential decrees. So let us pass a bill on these decrees. Naturally, such initiatives are not encouraged.
Therefore, the need for a law on the Constituent Assembly is a fact. I do not think that Bortko is a bannerman of an idea that was relayed to him directly from the Kremlin. It is not entirely clear who wrote the bill because it is far from perfect. I am no constitutionalist, nor do I want to sound like one; however, I have strong suspicions that the bill contradicts the Constitution. The bill empowers the Constituent Assembly to change the fundamental provisions of the Constitution or confirm its invariability – just imagine, the Assembly gathers for a session, holds a discussion, and confirms the invariability of the Constitution: «It's perfectly fine as it is; you are free to go.» Interestingly, the body that can amend the Constitution or confirm its invariability consists of the following officials: the president, all members of the Federation Council, all members of the Constitutional and the Supreme Courts, 100 representatives appointed by the State Duma, including its speaker, and 100 acknowledged experts in the field of law, appointed by the president. That is, not only is the president a member, but he or she also appoints 100 more members, plus 100 State Duma deputies, the entire upper house of parliament, and the Supreme and the Constitutional Courts. As a result, we get something similar to the British House of Peers, or rather, its extended version. The entire crowd is supposed to gather and amend the provisions of our Constitution. I failed to find any mentioning of the referendum, in spite of the Constitution having been adopted by the 1993 national referendum; therefore, the very idea that a bunch of high-profile officials could be given the power to re-write it directly contradicts the provisions of the said Constitution. At this point, I can hear my audience exclaim: «As if it had ever stopped them!» It has, in fact. Whom did it stop and when?
Let us move on to the forecasting bit. The pre-election and the post-election periods, both of which are included in the big electoral cycle, are characterized by a general turbulence. I have already addressed it more than once. I think I mentioned it in my talk about the beginning of the political season, where I covered the so-called «dark side» of pre-election turbulence – specifically, an increase of chaotic violence on the part of law enforcement agencies. The notorious Maltsev case is a vivid testimony to this fact. In all, the pre-election period is characterized by extremists and externally funded radical forces making repetitive attempts to destabilize our society. If this is the general rule, such forces must present themselves. They must be identified and defeated in a timely fashion, before the festive ceremonies begin. Basically, this is what is happening, according to my outstandingly accurate forecast.
Even a child can make a forecast based on the nature of the regime. However, adults tend to make the mistake of not knowing where to stop. They forecast a certain event and then keep going until they reach the horizon, for instance, saying something like this: «Not only will law enforcement violence grow chaotically, but they will also close the borders, outlaw electricity, and ban everyone from Google.» This is not going to happen.
So, this was the dark side of the electoral turbulence. The other side – which is not light, but slightly more comical – is the pre-election period being a «fair of ideas.» The political class – widely understood as a group of people with authority and influence over the decision-making process, including people with a degree of publicity that entitles them to a say in this process, and people devoid of publicity but involved in the process nonetheless – is supposed to share their invaluable ideas with us. Thus, they may suggest that certain things be changed or left as they are and devise ways of entertaining voters and luring them to polling stations.
An average voter is reluctant to show up, oblivious to the difference he or she can make in the situation when everything seems to be premeditated; however, an election held in the absence of voters is an awkward situation, so we need to provide incentives, offering the electorate some sort of entertainment. Talks on subjects similar to those I have mentioned, including monarchy, a public post à la Deng Xiaoping, and a complete rewrite of the Constitution, emerge at a frightening pace during this period. If you pay attention to every loud declaration and let it get to you, there will be no time left for anything else. Instead, we should think of it as a typical feature of any electoral campaign. They are the same everywhere, with the only difference: no other country faces the particular challenge of having to excite its voters artificially in order to secure turnout at the election; normally, voters are excited with the opportunity of making a choice and having several alternatives, so they come to polling stations without any extra incentives. The turnout can be higher or lower; yet still, if voters see a candidate who meets their requirements, they show up and cast their votes. By contrast, if a voter does not see any interesting proposals, it is difficult task to spark his or her interest artificially. Naturally, the arch enemy of excitement is predictability, which makes the task even harder around these parts.
Nevertheless, unlike voters, our political class is utterly agitated. For them, nothing is predictable. The election outcome is of little consequence; what matters is the distribution of authority: who gets to keep what was theirs, who loses their positions, and who gains new ground – these are the crucial points of concern for our political elite. This is what sends them scurrying about with their invaluable proposals. And yet, it is a good idea to keep track of what they say. There is no direct correlation between what is said during the campaign and what happens after the votes are counted. As an example, I can give you the 2012 presidential election with its not very memorable campaign. What were its highlights? Apart from the presidential decrees that were passed in May and almost ruined our system of federal and regional funding, few things come to mind, and none of the theme lines of Putin's third term were represented in his campaign. Neither the change of the foreign-policy direction, nor the turf war with a neighboring state, nor the crackdown on foreign agents of all shapes and sizes, nor the militarization, nor the clericalization – none of these were mentioned. Similarly, we should not expect the government to bring to life exactly what they have been hinting at before the upcoming election. The process is not at all simple or predictable.
However, what are the signs we should be watching? We should observe how political figures present themselves, who is more active, who stays in the shadows, and what proposals they make. A sober man's thoughts are everyone's words during the election. In this regard, I would say the spectacle is noteworthy, even informative. At the same time, worrying about a complete makeover of our Constitution is excessive. Regarding the nature of the current regime, the cornerstone of our forecasting, I have to say the following: our regime is legalistic; it is bureaucratic by nature, with legalism as its ideology. Not to be confused with legitimacy, legalism focuses on following procedures instead of the essence of the law. Legalism stands for breaking the law while formally observing it. This is the reason why ballot rigging is such a popular technology, for instance. This is why all the fuss about the president being elected for two terms in a row, the exact meaning of «in a row,» and taking a break between the first and the second couple of presidential terms is pure legalism, a set of tricks meant to feign procedural legitimacy. This is exactly what makes me think that a drastic rewrite of any document is not necessarily impossible but not likely – as you understand, anything is possible and there are no physical obstacles; however, there are many things we never do despite being physically able. Similarly, such acts are not typical of our political machine.
Besides, its characteristics are more or less permanent; what varies is its condition. At present, it is running low on resources; it is in no state to humor us with a somersault or fall on the ground to turn into a brave, handsome prince, like a character of a Russian fairy tale. Today's priority is saving calories, self-preservation to the point of going into hibernation whenever possible. This is why such drastic, purposeful transformation steps do not seem likely to me. The transformation is ongoing; any living system transforms, but it hardly ever follows the plan devised within the system.