Opinion

Clashing narratives over Russia’s constitutional amendments

After Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a series of revisions to the Constitution of the Russian Federation on January 15, 2020, pro-Kremlin outlets reported that the constitutional amendments would strengthen the sovereignty and independence of Russia, as well as contribute to the improvement of the country’s political system. Western media, however, dubbed the amendments “a constitutional coup.”

The proposed amendments come at a time when Putin is closing out his second — and notionally final — term as president of the Russian Federation. While constitutional revisions are common practice in any democracy, in oligarchical governments with entrenched power interests such as Russia, they are often used as a means of further consolidating power behind the elite few. These amendments, if enacted, would serve to do just that: consolidate power behind the office of the president and, in this case, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

During his annual state of the nation address on January 15, Putin announced a package of constitutional amendments that would enter into force step-by-step. After they were approved by Russia’s State Duma and Federation Council, the president signed the amendments, thereby introducing Article 3, which describes the procedure for their entry into force. Subsequently, Russia’s constitutional court approved the amendments on March 16, leading into the final step: a nationwide vote on whether to approve the amendments, scheduled for April. If a majority of voters are in favor, the amendments will take immediate effect.

After Putin proposed the constitutional changes in January, the amendments quickly provoked much public discussion, fueling further division between the pro- and anti-Putin camps. In early 2020, 47 per cent of Russians argued that constitutional amendments serve Putin’s interests, who they believe wants to remain in power indefinitely. Another 44 per cent of the public believes that constitutional changes are necessary to improve the political system in Russia and that they serve the nation’s interests, according to an opinion poll by the Levada Center, an independent research institute.

A tranche of entrenching amendments

During a series of votes on March 10, Russia’s State Duma passed a key amendment that nullifies the current status of the incumbent president, thereby circumventing the two-consecutive-term limit. This amendment would enable Putin to run in the presidential elections of 2024 and 2030, possibly extending his office through 2036, by which point he would be 83 years old.

Among the nearly 40 other amendments passed on March 10 were some that forbid the president from having foreign bank accounts and owning property abroad. Russian senators, deputies, prosecutors, and members of the government are also prohibited from holding foreign citizenship and bank accounts abroad. Another of the amendments would allow the president to request that Russia’s Federation Council remove judges from the constitutional and supreme courts. Currently, the president has the power to nominate a judge, who is then approved by the Federation Council, but has no power to request removal, allowing judges to remain on the bench for the entirety of a 12-year term. For a country like Russia, with an entrenched and highly involved oligarchical power structure, the most likely result of such an amendment would be removal of justices who rule against that same power structure, as opposed to removing justices who are actually unfit for office.

Another of the recently passed amendments would enshrine in the constitution a current unofficial authority: Russia’s constitutional court currently has de facto jurisdiction on whether to enforce the decisions of foreign and international courts and arbitrations in Russia, and the amendment would formalise this by adding it to the constitution. This, in turn, would allow the constitutional court to refuse to enforce decisions from foreign or multilateral bodies if they contradict Russian laws.

Methodology and reach

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) selected six media outlets for analysis, all of which fell under two categories: pro-Kremlin outlets (RT, Izvestia, and Rossiyskaya Gazeta) funded by the Russian government or any other institute affiliated with the government and western media outlets with Russian-language services (Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Deutsche Welle). Russian-language outlets were selected to investigate the information available for a Russian domestic audience.

Having selected these outlets, the DFRLab used Google Advanced Search to analyse articles published by each outlet chosen using the most neutral term — Поправки к Конституции (amendments to the constitution) in Russian.

To determine which amendments received more media attention, the DFRLab selected the first 20 articles returned by Google in the results list per outlet. The analysis considered articles published between January 15 (the day on which Putin proposed the amendments) and January 31. Having analysed 120 articles in total, the DFRLab singled out three specific constitutional amendments covered more frequently than others by these outlets. The key selection criterion for these amendments was that at least three outlets in question should have discussed each selected amendment. Some of these amendments were covered by either pro-Russian or western outlets only.

The DFRLab examined engagement with the websites of selected outlets. A query on Similarweb showed that, among the selected pro-Kremlin outlets, RT garnered the largest number of monthly visits (over 50 million visits) between December 2019 and February 2020, while Rossiyskaya Gazeta received the highest number of unique visitors during the same period. More than 85 per cent of visits on these three websites were registered from Russia.

On the other hand, western outlets registered many fewer visitors during the same period. Radio Liberty’s Russian-language website registered slightly more than 10 million visits, while Voice of America garnered over five times fewer visits. The DFRLab could not include Deutsche Welle in this analysis, because it does not have a separate website for its Russian-language edition. Nevertheless, Similarweb analysis of Deutsche Welle’s website separately showed that DW.com registered around 110 million visits between December 2019 and February 2020 and that 7.8 percent of these visits came from Russia. Based on it, we can assume that the number of Deutsche Welle Russian service readers in Russia did not exceed 8.5 million people during this period. As such, the selected pro-Kremlin outlets garnered over five times more visits than Western media outlets.

 

The proposed amendments are good or bad for Russia. It depends…

Before moving on to analyse the specific amendments, the DFRLab examined clashing narratives pushed by pro-Kremlin and Western media outlets regarding the proposed package of constitutional changes.

Kremlin-funded outlets put a particular emphasis on the need for adjusting the Russian constitution to the “new reality” as a prerequisite to maintaining the country’s sovereignty and ensuring further development. Western outlets portrayed the constitutional amendments as damaging to the independence of political institutions in Russia.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta argued that the state system formed in the mid-2000s with a consolidated political power in Putin’s hands ensured Russia’s security and saved the country from collapse. The outlet also claimed, however, that Russia’s economic development had reached a new level and that moving forward with the existing system could slow down further growth.

In the same vein, Izvestia claimed that Putin had managed to restore Russia’s sovereignty, rightful status, and greatness over the past 20 years and that the proposed constitutional amendments aimed to consolidate those achievements. Finally, RT claimed that the primary goal of the proposed constitutional changes was the transition from the “super-presidential” system to a more balanced presidential-parliamentary system.

Western media outlets provided a drastically different assessment of the proposed constitutional changes in Russia, raising the alarm over their detrimental implications for the country’s future. US public broadcaster Voice of America asserted that the proposed changes would strengthen authoritarian power in Russia. In an interview with Voice of America, Putin’s former adviser Gleb Pavlovsky stated that the Russian leader was trapped inside a system of his own design: one he could not leave for fear that the current political system would fall apart.

US-funded outlet Radio Liberty reported that, with these changes, Russia was becoming an authoritarian system, where the president has unlimited power and the absence of a separation of powers is institutionalised. The outlet quoted the “Manifest of Russian citizens against constitutional coup and usurpation of power” saying that a constitutional coup was taking place in Russia, the purpose of which was to keep Putin and his corrupt regime in power forever. Authors called the reforms a special operation to rewrite the constitution illegally. The manifest was prepared by over 20 Russian politicians and civil activists to protest proposed constitutional amendments.

Finally, German outlet Deutsche Welle published an excerpt from the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum announcement saying that proposed amendments would lead to the weakening of the independence of the courts, the centralization of management by reducing regional powers, and the abolition of the autonomy of local authorities.

Different focus

One point of the proposed reforms that received attention from Russian media but not from Western media was a new rule establishing that an individual could not hold high political positions, such as that of president, prime minister, or governor, if they had ever held citizenship or some form of permanent residence in another country. The final version of this amendment, however, specified that Russian senators, deputies, prosecutors, and members of the government are prohibited from holding foreign citizenship and accounts with foreign banks, indicating that an amendment regarding holding citizenship or permanent residence in another country in the past had been abandoned.

Pro-Kremlin media outlets extensively discussed this specific amendment and called it a “nationalisation of the political elite.” RT published an op-ed saying that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians who wanted to integrate into the West stole money from Russia in order to invest in offshore jurisdictions. As a result, they obtained the right to live in the West and lost respect toward Russia. The author of the piece called such people “internal enemies” and “a direct threat to Russia” and asserted that state officials should not have dual citizenship.

Izvestia also claimed that, by proposing this requirement, Putin had started to nationalise the political elite. Finally, Rossiyskaya Gazeta quoted pro-Kremlin expert named Oleg Matveichev as saying that the proposed citizenship amendment would protect Russia from the “Ukrainian scenario,” in which Ukrainian politicians who had adopted a pro-western position enacted a “colonial administration” of the country. Matviechev appeared to be implying that former President Petro Poroshenko, in particular, was guilty of carrying out this “colonisation” after the 2014 Maidan revolution. The Western media outlets under analysis did not discuss the implications of this amendment.

Western and pro-Kremlin media, however, did both cover, differently, another amendment that concerned the decisions of international courts and other inter-state agencies. The proposed amendment would invalidate any decision made by international courts within the Russian territory whenever the decision contradicted the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

Voice of America argued that the proposed amendment would deprive Russians of their last hope for justice, as it would prevent Russian citizens from seeking redress in the European Court of Human Rights, a right they were guaranteed under Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe. It would also make Russia’s membership into the Council of Europe pointless. European experts told Voice of America that, with this amendment, Putin wanted to protect himself and his entourage from western pressure for his regime’s undemocratic practices.

Pro-Kremlin outlets pushed the opposing narrative about this particular amendment. For RT, the superiority of the Russian Constitution over international bodies and agreements would reinforce Russia’s sovereignty, calling it “a fundamental achievement.”

Rossiyskaya Gazeta quoted Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs in the Russian Parliament, who claimed that the amendment was in line with the practice of enforcing constitutional norms in European countries. Furthermore, he also argued that the reaction of western nations, in criticising the proposed revisions, was an aggressive act and similar to interference in Russia’s internal affairs. According to Kosachev, western countries hoped to ensure that Russia retains limited sovereignty, rendering it unable to protect itself and unable to realize its national interests.

Finally, one amendment received widespread attention in western media but was not debated in-depth in Russia. The amendment in question authorises Russia’s Federation Council (the upper house of the country’s parliament) to dismiss constitutional and supreme court judges at the request of the president.

This amendment had been subject to harsh criticism in western media, but pro-Russian media mostly gave it only a passing mention. Radio Liberty argued that it violated the principle of independence and inviolability of judges and that it contradicted the opening chapters of the Russian constitution, which establish the separation of powers and the freedom of the judiciary.

In a similar vein, Deutsche Welle wrote that the proposed amendment tied the highest judicial authority to the Kremlin, a change that would amount to the de facto abolition of the independence of the court. Voice of America suggested as well that this amendment was an attempt to strengthen the unlimited power of the current president.

Conclusion

The analysis of the coverage of constitutional changes showed that the proposed constitutional amendments in Russia yielded a mixed response from the media. Pro-Kremlin outlets amplified messages coming from Russian authorities and justified the need for the amendments. The overall reaction from western media outlets, meanwhile, was rather negative; they questioned the promised benefits of the proposed amendments and expressed concerns about Putin’s true intentions in proposing the changes.

Of particular note, the amendment that would nullify presidential terms limit hints that Putin may indeed seek to prolong his tenure as president. Nevertheless, he has yet to declare his intention to run for president again in the 2024 elections. What is for certain is that the latest amendment has created ambiguity, which will keep the political elite, as well as the country in general, in a state of confusion regarding Putin’s plans for 2024. This outcome aligns with Putin’s management style, in which he fosters confusion and uncertainty as a means of maintaining power and influence in both the domestic and international political sphere. If he were to announce an intention not to seek office again, Putin’s power would diminish significantly as he entered into the lame duck phase of his time in office.

This article originally appeared on medium.com on March 18.

Main Photo: Aleksander Nyemenov/Getty Images

About the author

Givi Gigitashvili

Givi Gigitashvili

Givi Gigitashvili is a research assistant for the Caucasus at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) based in Georgia.

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