Hands off the Constitution
Widely regarded as one of the authors of the Constitution, Viktor Sheinis is chief researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He spoke with Ekaterina Alexeeva, Program Manager and Editor, Kennan Moscow Project on the occasion of the Tenth Starovoitova Readings, "The Russian Constitution at 20 Years: Achievements, Problems, and Prospects" on November 22 in Moscow. Translated by Nic Wondra
Alexeeva: Victor Leonidovich, the Starovoitova Readings are being held for the tenth year. As a regular participant, could you say a few words about why these perennial readings are important to you as a researcher and public figure?
Sheinis: First and foremost, they are important to me as a person and a citizen. Galya Starovoitova was my friend. Her murder was one of the most despicable crimes committed in our country in the post-Soviet period. In my opinion, it is a moral imperative for our society to honor Galina’s memory in this way. I am very pleased that these readings have been held without interruption for ten years.
In your speech, you mentioned how the opinions of experts and lawyers were divided on the need to change the Russian Constitution. Some say that fundamental changes are needed in the text of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Others maintain that gradual adjustment can be best achieved by changing certain norms. Still others believe that it is necessary to change not the Constitution itself, but its practical implementation. What is your opinion?
Overall, with the current balance of power, under the present regime and with the existing parliament, avidly following every gesture of one particular person, the only sensible motto might be: “Hands off the Constitution!” In the long-term, I believe that the Constitution as a whole and in particular its specially-protected sections (first, second, and ninth) should not be subject to revision. Someday, our society may deem it appropriate, after careful consideration, to adopt a new constitution. At this point we can only speak of minor “spot” changes. Under the present circumstances, with the current balance of powers, even slight changes will only do harm.
In connection with this question, today's Duma decision to amend the Russian Constitution in a third reading is notable. It has been proposed to merge the Higher Commercial Court with the Russian Supreme Court, establishing instead a unified Supreme Court. What is your attitude toward this decision and how do you expect it will affect the development of Russian society?
The effect will be very negative, because in this case, as often happens, purely opportunistic political goals have been pursued through a principal reorganization of state power—damaging the separation of powers. The parallel existence of three interacting, but independent courts in the current Constitution is an important element of the constitutional principle of separation of powers. The result of the proposed change, I think, is quite certain: the elimination of the Commercial Court in its present form. The court seems to be the least controlled and least obedient component of the judiciary. I am not an expert in this area and am not familiar with the judges at the Commercial Court, but from what I know about Chairman Anton Ivanov, I characterize him as relatively independent and someone who seeks to uphold the law and justice. Subordinating the Commercial Court to the Supreme Court, where lower courts are closely managed, appears to be the goal of the executive branch. Also, few have noted that these substantial changes in the organization of the judicial system include a reordering of the public prosecutor’s system, which in turn helps to further the agenda of the president, by dragging it into the notorious power vertical, which is subordinate to the center. Moving the courts to St. Petersburg without any discussion or reasonable justification shows how the executive branch manages the courts. For whom and to what end was this needed? Is it that we couldn’t think of a better place to spend the money, or have we not yet spoiled that great city with enough modern buildings?
And a final question: there is conflicting information in the press about the intentions of the authorities regarding further amendments to the constitution. In your opinion, if this is not just a rumor, how might the Russian Constitution change, given the current political situation?
It can only be changed for the worse, since there is an attempt underway to change some fundamental provisions, as detailed in today's presentation by Professor Andrei Medushevsky from the Higher School of Economics. In particular, we should consider the proposed removal of the 13th article, which guarantees ideological diversity in the Russian Federation, and assures the secular character of the state. In other words, it is an attempt to bring the constitution in line with all that is being done on the sly, in a private capacity, and is clearly unconstitutional. As a professional historian who graduated from the history department of Leningrad State University, I am particularly worried about the idea of creating a single, uniform history textbook. These tricks constitute not just a violation of the principles of diversity and pluralism in society, but would eliminate important constitutional provisions that prevent the formation of a central state ideology. I’d like to emphasize that in the current political situation, with the legislature filled with docile followers, as well as those who would put the cart before the horse, such proposed amendments would only subject our contradictory Constitution to further deterioration.