Putin Submits Draft Law Amending Constitution to Parliament; PM Mishustin Has New Cabinet & New Spending Order

On January 20th, Putin submitted the draft law to the Duma amending the Russian constitution. There is a summary of the draft law in English on the Kremlin’s website, which is what I’ll be using to discuss the draft law, along with some supplemental sources. I’m also including additional commentary I’ve found from trusted sources who have access to the more complete and detailed Russian version.

The first few paragraphs reiterate the restrictions for individuals running for president of Russia and other major federal offices such as prime minister, cabinet members, members of parliament, regional governors, judges, etc. These include restrictions on dual citizenship and residency and, for the president, continuous residency in Russia for at least 25 years.

As has been pointed out by others, these requirements effectively prohibit the children of the current political class from running for major office in Russia since most of them have studied and/or lived in the U.S. or Europe and have therefore had long-term residency in a foreign country.

Putin mentioned a couple of changes in his Address to the Federal Assembly earlier this month that I did not go into in my previous analysis. This included the requirement that Russia’s constitution take precedence over international law if the two are in conflict. Putin’s draft law stated the following:

To protect national sovereignty, it is proposed in the draft law that the decisions of interstate bodies based on the provisions of international treaties signed by the Russian Federation shall not be implemented in Russia if their interpretation contradicts the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

With respect to the expanded responsibilities of the parliament – consisting of the Federation Council (upper chamber) and the Duma (lower chamber) – the draft law summary states:

To make interaction between the representative and executive branches of power more effective, to strengthen the role of the State Duma and parliamentary parties, as well as to enhance the responsibility of members of the Government, it has been proposed that the Constitutional provisions on the procedure for appointing the Prime Minister and deputy prime ministers of Russia be amended to stipulate that candidates for these posts are appointed by the President following their approval by the State Duma.

A similar procedure has been proposed for the appointment of the heads of ministries whose operation is supervised by the Government.

Interestingly, there is some debate on what kind of qualitative change this represents. Professor Paul Robinson has looked at the full Russian draft submission and made some comparisons between what the current constitutional language is and what it will be changed to:

As said, Putin had suggested that in the future it would be the Duma not the president who would do the choosing. Now we know the details, and it turns out that the reality will be rather different.

This is what the current Russian constitution says (Article 111.1):

The Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be appointed by the President of the Russian Federation with the consent of the State Duma. [Председатель Правительства Российской Федерации назначается Президентом Российской Федерации с согласия Государственной Думы.]

This is what the document submitted to parliament proposes that Article 111.1 should now read:

The Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be appointed by the President of the Russian Federation after confirmation of his candidature by the State Duma. [Председатель Правительства Российской Федерации назначается Президентом Российской Федерации после утверждения его кандидатуры Государственной Думой.]

In short, the only change is that the prime minister will be appointed by the president ‘after approval’ rather than ‘with the consent’. How is that any different?? I have to say that I struggle to see the significance of the change.

The real question, then, is where this candidate for Prime Minister will come from – from the president, as now, or from the Duma? If it’s the former, then real power stays where it is. If it’s the latter, then you can genuinely start talking about ‘responsible government’. A proposed amendment to Article 111.2 provides the answer. At present the article reads:

The proposal on the candidate to the post of the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be submitted not later than two weeks after a newly-elected President of the Russian Federation takes office or after the resignation of the Government of the Russian Federation or one week after the State Duma rejects the candidate.

The amendment to Article 111.2 proposes that it should now read:

The proposal on the candidate to the post of the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be submitted to the State Duma by the President of the Russian Federation [my emphasis] not later than two weeks after a newly elected President of the Russian Federation takes office or after the resignation of the Government of the Russian Federation or one week after the State Duma rejects the candidate or after the President of the Russian Federation has resigned his duties or the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation has retired.

The words that I have emphasized in the quotation above clarify the situation: the name of the candidate for prime minister will be submitted ‘to the State Duma by the President of the Russian Federation’. In other words, everything will remain as it was, only now the Duma ‘confirms’ the candidate rather than gives its ‘consent’.

This doesn’t sound like much of a change. I’ll have to keep an eye on whether there are any further consultations on this with the working group that was assembled to confer on the constitutional changes or any other tweaks that will be made before the changes go into effect.

Putin emphasized in his Address to the Federal Assembly, and reiterated in his recent remarks, that though there may be room to expand some of the parliament’s authority, it is appropriate for Russia to remain a presidential republic and not a parliamentary republic:

“I think that Russia, with its vast territory, with many faiths, with a large number of nations, peoples, nationalities living in the country – you can’t even count, someone says 160, someone 190, you know, needs strong presidential power.”

I noticed in this English summary of the draft submission there is nothing about any changes to the terms of the presidency – specifically, removal of the word “consecutive” in regards to the two term limit. However, Robinson stated that the change is indeed in the complete Russian version of the submission:

This will change Article 81.3 so that instead of reading, ‘One and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms’, it will say, ‘One and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms’ – i.e. the word ‘consecutive’ will be removed.

The draft law also gives the Federation Council the authority to investigate and remove judges for incompetence or corruption if the president recommends it:

In addition, the Federation Council is to have the power to terminate the powers of judges of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Russia, the judges of the courts of cassation and appeal upon the recommendation of the President of Russia, if they are found guilty of acts that defame the honour and dignity of judges, as well as in other cases described in the federal legislation according to which the said persons can no longer perform their duties.

Furthermore, the draft law allows the Constitutional Court to review proposed legislation for constitutionality prior to passage into law:

The role of the Constitutional Court is to be strengthened by giving it the power to analyse, at the request of the President of Russia, compliance with the Constitution of laws adopted by the two houses of the Federal Assembly before they are signed by the President.

As promised the draft law codifies that the state is responsible for providing basic social justice measures:

To protect the social rights of citizens and ensure equal opportunities for them throughout the country, Article 75 of the Constitution is to be complemented with provisions setting forth the minimum wage in the amount not lower than the subsistence minimum of the economically active population throughout the country, guaranteeing the indexation of pensions, social benefits and other social payments, and setting out the basic principles of nationwide retirement benefits.

Another change involves the State Council, which is currently an advisory body to the president to coordinate different parts of government and advise on critical issues. It is now to become an official executive body. Bloomberg described the changes in a recent report as follows:

At the moment, that body is a gathering of regional and national leaders headed by Putin but with largely ceremonial powers. Under the proposed changes, the Council’s role would for the first time be written into the constitution and a special federal law.

The State Council would have the power to “set the main directions of the domestic and foreign policy of the Russian Federation and the priority areas of socio-economic development,” according to the draft. The body would be formed by the president, although the proposed amendments give no indication how that process would take place.

Of course, there is speculation that Putin could keep a role after 2024 as the head of this body.

The Duma unanimously passed the submitted changes on January 23rd. Shortly afterwards, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed to the press that Russians will vote on the changes and will have the final word:

“We primarily don’t view this vote as just a simple formality,” Peskov added. “If people believe that it is not expedient [to introduce amendments to the constitution] then that’s what it is. It is not a formality, it is indeed a vote for or against,” he stressed.

Prime Minister Mishustin now has a new cabinet in place, with some of the major players keeping their posts, such as Sergey Lavrov as Foreign Minister, Sergey Shoigu as Defense Minister, and Anton Siluanov as the Finance Minister.

Mishustin has also released a new budget order. The following details, which are reported by The Moscow Times, reinforce my suspicion that Medvedev was replaced – in large part – because he’d been ineffective in implementing important economic plans:

Russia’s new government looks set to revise the country’s ultra-conservative economic policy in favor of more spending, a boost to welfare payments and increased investment.

Mikhail Mishustin, who President Vladimir Putin appointed last week to replace Dimitry Medvedev, instructed his new cabinet Wednesday to revise the state budget – the latest version of which was passed only a few weeks ago.

An announcement on the government’s website said the amendments to the budget would help realize the goals outlined by Putin in his state-of-the-nation address last week, where he said Russia should boost its growth rate to above 3%, increase the level of investment in the economy and improve the livelihoods of Russians, who have seen their incomes squeezed for five of the last six years.

The report points out that strict macroeconomic policy over the past several years has placed Russia’s economy in a stable position with low inflation, budget surpluses and an increase in international reserves, but it has come at the cost of growth and higher incomes.

…. To potentially pave the way for higher spending, Putin stripped his Finance Minister Anton Siluanov – the man who had overseen Russia’s frugal budget policies – of his position as First Deputy Prime Minister Tuesday evening, replacing him with the president’s former adviser, Andrey Belousov. While Siluanov will officially remain in charge of Russia’s budget, Belousov’s appointment “could raise some eyebrows among investors, given his state interventionist positions,” Deutsche Bank’s Peter Sidorov said in a research note.

Now Putin realizes it’s time to shift gears and that it’s safe to do so. As I’ve written before, the Russian president is well aware that the population wants to see improvements in income and living standards. A significant portion of Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly earlier this month also discussed increases in maternity benefits in order to create and sustain incentives toward pushing up the lagging birthrate. Bloomberg has reported that Putin is now proposing spending the equivalent of $65 billion on support for maternity and poverty benefits.

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