December 12 marks Constitution day in Russia. It's the 13th anniversary of the adoption in 1993 of the current constitution following the break-up of the Soviet Union.
13 years ago, the Russian people adopted the new Constitution of the Russian Federation in a referendum. It was a necessary move. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist and the old Soviet Constitution had become outdated, it didn't meet the requirements of the newly created country that proclaimed freedom and democracy.
The new constitution was meant to clear up the anomalies of the old Soviet era. It proclaimed that “Man, his rights and liberties are of supreme value”. As human rights campaigner Ludmila Alekseeva put it, “The old Soviet Constitution was based on a principle of ”man for the state“ and the constitution reversed that with the principle of ”a state for the man".
The new Constitution declared separation of the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of power if Russia. All these powers are independent and work to check and balance each other.“In the Soviet times a person could not complain on the activities of an official unless he was given special permission for that. The judiciary system was an instrument for those who were in power in the country. Now at least we have a mechanism that can help people fight for their rights. And those mechanisms are written in the new constitution,”
explains Tamara Morschakova, Constitutional Court expert.
Article 29 of the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to freedom of thought and speech, as well as freedom of the mass media. The way this article has been implemented has evoked harsh criticism from international human rights groups, mainly because major TV channels in Russia are financially under control of the state. On the other hand, the written press is mostly independent.
Not everyone agrees that the new Constitution works well. Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion and now leader of an opposition party allied to the ultra-right, says the text may have changed, but it lacks substance. “We see treatment of this written piece of paper by Russian officials, and it’s quite similar to the way the Constitution was treated by Soviet officials,”
But critics admit one thing: even though the constitution isn't always implemented perfectly, it’s a giant step forward for a country that lived without democracy for most of the 20th century.