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28 Feb, 2020 20:45

‘Taken out of context’: Russian senator slams WaPo for twisting his constitutional reform interview in ‘provocative’ piece

‘Taken out of context’: Russian senator slams WaPo for twisting his constitutional reform interview in ‘provocative’ piece

A Washington Post story about Russia’s constitutional reform has drawn the ire of Senator Andrey Klishas, who gave the outlet a lengthy interview but found only few of his lines in the text, which he believes is “provocative.”

Klishas, who is a co-chair of the constitutional reform working group, met the Washington Post journalists to discuss the aspects of the impeding reform in every detail. “I gave a big, all-out interview, expecting it to be used in full,” Klishas told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

The senator also added that he hoped “western journalists would get best possible clarifications about the work” of the group he is heading. But Klishas says he discovered the piece published on February 23 mostly focused on some of the “crazy” suggestions submitted to the working group by the broader public, while speculating about “anti-liberal” nature of the reform.

Also on rt.com ‘I’m not proposing to extend my powers’: Putin says potential changes to constitution are not about him

It presented the amendments as a way for President Vladimir Putin to retain power after his presidential term ends in 2024. The senator slammed the piece, noting that very few lines from his interview were actually used in the text. “As a result, very few of my quotes, taken out of context, were used in the provocative piece,” he said.

Below is the entire text of Senator Klishas’ interview.

Washington Post: Is the current Constitution somehow flawed and are there any reasons for amendments?

Andrey Klishas: The current Constitution is not flawed in any way. As we can see, the 1993 Constitution has proved to be a very good framework. However, there is a huge difference between what Russia used to be in the early 1990s and what Russia is today in 2020. Some aspects that people put less focus on in the early 1990s, in 1993, are now in the spotlight. Ensuring sovereignty and the supremacy of the Constitution across Russia’s entire territory are on the front burner right now.

According to the current Constitution, it is exactly the supreme law of the land. But clauses and provisions ceding supremacy to international treaties in case such a treaty runs into conflict with our domestic law are now raising concern, including among our people. It is not an issue of Russia’s international commitments. We have always delivered on our international commitments and will continue to do so. However, there have been cases when the European Court of Human Rights offers its own interpretation of the European Convention demanding that Russian execute commitments that Russia has never signed.

There are no commitments to that effect in the Convention but what the European Court of Human Rights does by passing its judgement is effectively issuing new provisions, and making it obligatory for us. Even in the case of an interpretation, Russia complies with its commitments, too, except for situations when these interpretations clash with the Constitution. Here is a simple case.

According to the European court, all criminal convicts shall be eligible to vote. However, the Russian Constitution limits the right to vote for such individuals serving their time in jail. The ECHR demanded that Russia introduce amendments into its current legislation and expand their rights. This is happening at a time when many European countries have identical restrictions vis-à-vis criminal convicts. In some countries, they are even tougher than in Russia.

Take the UK, for example, where virtually all convicts not just those serving time in jail are barred from voting in one way or another. Such cases have created an impression that supranational bodies such as the ECHR are trying to control our country through these interpretations of international conventions. People say this is unacceptable.

The Constitution would add an amendment with a clear fix: international conventions shall not apply in an interpretation that violates the Russian Constitution. It is the same in the US. I guess US judges would be very much surprised if you tell them they should rely on international conventions rather than US laws. There are several cases by US courts saying it is US law that takes priority in the US. And the US Supreme Court could always have its final say.

We believe it is fully justified. Just like the US, we believe that the body that has the mandate of supreme constitutional control — and it is the Supreme Court in the US — shall have its final say and decide whether provisions of an international conventions apply, particularly in their interpretation. That framework has been in place in the US and will be effectively applied in Russia.

The second priority is the distribution of rights and responsibilities between our branches. Amendments seek to raise the level of pluralism in our political system. The President hands over some of his mandate to the lower and upper chambers of the Parliament. The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation will also have its mandate extended. I think that a stronger Parliament and Constitutional Court will further strengthen our political system. I believe this is the way the political system in the US works. It is not individuals but strong political institutions that uphold political stability.

Social security is another priority. We are resolute it is an important issue on the agenda. Back in 1993, when the Constitution was adopted, it introduced the concept of a welfare state. However, that was the time when people did not get paid, benefits were paid irregularly. The government was struggling to pay retirement or other social benefits that people were eligible to under law. Today, the situation has drastically changed.

We now want to make a standing constitutional provision that any regular benefits shall be adjusted upward. People still recall what happened in the 1990s and they fear that a new president, the government and the Parliament may renege on these social security safeguards. A lot of people associate stability in the social sector with Putin. It was Putin who convinced major companies and oligarchs in the early 2000s that they need to pay salaries to their staff and taxes into the Russian budget.

This is why people think Putin stands for social security. As we introduce existing safeguards into the Constitution, we also add a clause on the upward adjustment of benefits so that a new government or Parliament or even a new president would not be able to repeal that through ordinary laws, and people are very positive about the amendment.

These are arguable the three main reasons why changes to the Constitution must be made today. Putin’s rating is very high, and the United Russia party has the constitutional majority in the Parliament, and we could pass these amendments as well as adopt a dedicated procedure that would put these amendments up for a nationwide vote.

WP: From what we understand, there have been 700+ proposals. How do you manage to review all of them and decide which ones should be accepted?

AK: The proposals don’t come in the form of specific changes to the language of the Constitution. These are not proposals penned by lawyers. In these proposals, ordinary people ask for more safety net provisions or defining the powers of the Government to give NGOs and civil society in general a bigger role in drafting social policies, as well as policies in culture and education.

What we get is proposals with an idea that people want to see written into the Constitution. Many proposals talk about the same things. The working group is tasked with looking at these proposals; and together with civil society groups we have to figure out if these proposals are relevant, if they are supported by our people and to what degree, and then we can find the right language to add them into the Constitution so that will be later discussed by the Parliament.

WP: Are there proposals that will obviously not become part of the Constitution? Any suggestions that are beyond its scope? What are they?

AK: Of course. For example, many people want to see certain standards stipulated by the Constitution. Healthcare and education standards, etc. People think that these are very important, and we agree — yes, these are very important, but they can’t be in the Constitution, of course. These should be spelled out in laws and regulations.

It’s important to make sure that all amendments to the Constitution have public support because it is the people who will vote for these amendments. There are very important things proposed like healthcare and education standards, but these should be stipulated by other laws. The President instructed our working group to pool all such proposals into one group and then forward them to the State Duma, the Government, and regional parliaments.

WP: Are the proposals publicly available?

AK: Of course. They are 100 percent available. We announce our agenda for a working group meeting in advance, any media could attend, and we hand out the materials to the members of the working group. All this information is not classified, the members of the working group can share it with experts, and they discuss it. The next working group meeting will convene on Tuesday, you may come if you want. Just take your press card with you.

WP: The current Constitution is quite liberal by Western standards; it provides for many human rights, freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. It’s quite a liberal Constitution. Do you think the new Constitution should be made more conservative?

AK: Let’s make one thing clear: this is not a new Constitution. The rights you are talking about are indeed set out very liberally, that’s the second chapter of the Constitution.

The second chapter stipulates the rights and freedoms. According to our rules set out in the second chapter, we can’t amend the second chapter. You know, there have been calls to amend the second chapter. There is only one way to do it, by adopting a new Constitution. It is clearly stated in the Constitution itself. One cannot change the provisions of the Constitution through amendments.

We discussed it with the President on several occasions. The President’s position in this regard is firm and clear: the President is against revising the second chapter provisions and against adopting a new Constitution. The President said that all the essential provisions, the first chapter that describes the constitutional basis, the second chapter that describes the fundamental rights and freedoms, all this must remain unchanged. And we will only amend the remaining chapters, the ones that don’t affect the basic human rights.

There is another reason why we don’t want to consider adopting a new Constitution and rewriting the second chapter provisions. In more than 25 years since the Constitution was adopted, there has been another critical component added to it, the decisions of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation.

There are several dozens of such volumes, not one. And it is the rulings of the Constitutional Court that shape contemporary interpretation of the rights and freedoms. Most of these decisions are based either on international human rights standards or ECHR decisions.

So, this huge collection of interpretations should be preserved since it’s this understanding of human rights and freedoms that shape the common legal framework that also includes the states that have signed the European Convention. So, adopting a new Constitution, amending the second chapter could result in losing this wealth of interpretations, and we would have to interpret these provisions all over again. The President is against it, he thinks we must preserve the common legal framework with Europe that is ensured by the decisions of the Constitutional Court, among other things.

I represent the Federation Council at the hearings when the Constitutional Court is reviewing the constitutionality of laws. I know that Russian people trust the Constitutional Court, because most decisions that are made today involve the Constitutional Court ruling this or that provision unconstitutional based on complaints it receives from the general public, even in those cases when the Parliament and the President are in favour of existing laws.

It means there have been certain changes in the way these laws are practically applied, with the court paying more attention to the fact that the rights of complaint submitters have been violated. This explains the high level of trust the Constitutional Court enjoys, and that’s why the President has greenlighted giving additional powers to the Constitutional Court.

MPs understand that this benefits the legal system, although we have to amend laws because of the rulings of the Constitutional Court, but we understand that the Court is primarily guided by the best interests. We, therefore, believe that the Constitutional Court is getting extended powers for good reason and the proposed amendments will serve to reinforce the legitimacy of the Constitution.

In Russia, just like in the United States, the Constitutional Court is composed of very independent and very prominent legal professionals, and the presiding judge, Mr. Zorkin, is a man who has a history of confronting top-level authorities.

We all know that President Yeltsin once dissolved the Constitutional Court and prevented it from getting back together again, when the Court failed to support him. Yeltsin made this decision, but Valery Zorkin withstood the pressure and did not want to accommodate his request.

What I’m trying to say is that the judges sitting on the Constitutional Court are not only highly qualified professionals, they also have a very strong character. That’s why we are positive that the Constitutional Court will use the powers it gets to promote the interests of the Russian people.

WP: Some proposals are about setting up the State Council and there are concerns that this step will produce two centers of power. Two powerhouses.

AK: There cannot be two centres of power. Take the presidential powers, they are all stipulated in the Constitution. The State Council won’t be able to usurp these powers.

The Constitution sets forth the powers of the President, the State Duma, and the Federation Council in detail, and it states that the State Council, which already exists, is set to become a constitutional state body.

The State Council will be mentioned in the Constitution for one particular reason, in order to accomplish one key task — to increase the role of regions in running the country. We have the Federation Council, one of the chambers of the Russian Parliament, which has its powers laid down in the Constitution as well.

From now on, the members of the Federation Council would be officially called senators by the Constitution, just like in the US. The Federation Council would get additional powers to appoint the heads of the ministries of defense, justice and the interior, and the minister of foreign affairs. From now on, the President would have to consult the Federation Council about this.

Today, the State Council consists of regional governors; its task is to support a dialogue with the government, a constitutional body, on an equal footing — I stress this, on equal terms — to ensure the implementation of key national projects and state programs. In order to give regions more power in executing these projects, we need to reinforce the constitutional status of the State Council.

I’d like to underscore that the State Council cannot in any way acquire the powers vested with the President, State Duma, Federation Council or the judiciary. Its constitutional status and its mandate cannot overlap with any of them.

WP: Some commentators say that this whole State Council amendment is aimed at helping Vladimir Putin to stay in power after 2024. What do you think about that?

AK: We can clearly see from the amendments the President proposed that he is not going to run for president again. In theory, Putin can take up any post in the country but he cannot be reelected. It was Putin who suggested crossing out that condition about two “subsequent” terms which will undeniably prevent him from becoming president again even after a break.

It is my belief that all these speculations from political commentators and journalists regarding his future job are absolutely groundless. The Federation Council has way more functions than the State Council, and the State Duma holds a great deal of powers too.

You know, I am a lawyer and making forecasts about future careers of people is definitely outside of my scope of responsibilities. What I can tell you is that political experts and the media certainly haven’t read the Constitution and the language of the amendments. They did hear a thing a two about the proposed changes, they filled in the gaps with a fair amount of guesswork, and then got terrified by something they invented themselves and rushed to comment on that without a second thought.

Again, it’s not my job to comment on the fantasies and fears that political observers and journalists have. I don’t know what Vladimir Putin can become after his term in office expires.

It’s my opinion that the role of the Parliament and the Constitutional Court will be reinforced; my assessment is based on the language of the amendments. I’d like to add that Putin today remains the most popular and influential politician in Russia, that’s a fact. As for all these forecasts and speculations… you should probably discuss it with the legion of political commentators out there. They will be glad to indulge in fantasies with you.

WP: And my last question. Thank you for your time. What about the national vote on the amendments? What if someone says, “I like the amendment about adjusting pensions, but I don’t like the one about the State Council”? Can they vote in favor of one and against the other at the same time?

AK: No, they can’t. It will be a yes-or-no vote on the all the amendments. We believe that in a way all amendments are connected. All amendments — the ones that have to do with the social sphere and state bodies — in the end are in a certain balance. Let’s say someone wants to vote against a broader mandate for the Constitutional Court.

But the Constitutional Court’s powers are connected with the powers wielded by the President, the Federation Council and the State Duma. So just like in any other country, there are no isolated state bodies, they are all interconnected with the powers of other state bodies. That’s why you can’t support the amendments about the President’s powers and say no to the amendments concerning the Constitutional Court. They are connected.

You can’t support the amendments on the State Duma, but not the ones on the Federation Council, because they are also linked. It’s impossible to separate them, from a legal point of view. Or, for example, the amendments that have to do with social payments are connected with the powers wielded by state bodies that will be responsible for effecting them.

All in all, we can say that the proposed package of amendments is essentially what the President put forward in his address to the Federal Assembly. That was the basis for the amendments. Besides, just imagine that we put every amendment to a vote. Just imagine the ballot, with several dozen questions. Have you ever seen anything like that in the Unites States, several dozen questions? I think it’s impossible.

If people see a ballot with several dozen questions they will probably think that we want to confuse them, that legal professionals want to confuse them. So I think that, first of all, it’s our responsibility to convey the meaning of the amendments to our people. Of course, some people will like social security-related amendments more and justice system-related amendments less. But every person will have a choice to make. Even when you like some things more and some things less, you have to find a balance to figure out whether you are in favor of this package or not.

In the end, you always pick this or that politician. Some people like what he says, some like his appearance more, some like his family more, some like what he says, but don’t like his family or his hair or skin color. In the end, every person makes a decision, considers all pros and cons and decides whether this particular politician, this Mr. X, will successfully represent their interests or not. There are many different factors involved.

Democracy as such is a hard decision, so people living in a democratic country have to be able to make hard decisions. I’m convinced that Russian people will be able to understand these amendments, think through all the pros and cons, see which amendments they like more and which they like less, and then decide, like they would in any regular election.

During regular elections, people decide whether this or that politician, with all his strengths and shortcomings, is going to promote their interests or not. It’s the same thing with voting on amendments: do people believe they will make our life better? If they do, they’ll vote yes, and if they don’t, they’ll vote no. I think these are similar cases, and in the end people are capable of making that choice.

WP: Thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

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