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3 Mar, 2020 16:20

Putin's constitutional changes: Proposals include ban on same-sex marriage & special place for God

Putin's constitutional changes: Proposals include ban on same-sex marriage & special place for God

Vladimir Putin stunned Russians in January when he began the countdown to his departure from the Kremlin by proposing changes to Russia's 1993 constitution. Adding to the drama, Prime Minister Medvedev resigned on the same day.

According to possible amendments now released ahead of a national vote scheduled for April 22, nationalists and the religious are likely to be the most satisfied with the process. However, gay rights campaigners and public officials with assets abroad are sure to despair.

The main talking points in the package include:

– The need to mention God in the document.

– Civil servants being prohibited from holding foreign bank accounts and citizenship.

– A ban on giving away any Russian territory.

– The restriction of marriage to the union of a man and a woman, ruling out gay marriage.

– Provisions to recognize the modern Russian Federation as the successor to the USSR (a move which enshrines its legacy as the victor in World War Two).

– A mention of “historical truth” to protect “the great achievement of Russians in their defense of the Fatherland.”

– The Russian people will be recognized as the founders of the state (which also implies that the national language is Russian).

– A guarantee that the minimum wage will not be lower than the cost of living.

While the ban on gay marriage is a major Western media talking point, it won't make Russia an outlier in Eastern Europe; neighboring Ukraine has a similar clause in its constitution. Additionally, it will almost certainly be popular domestically. The speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, said last month that she strongly supports the concept.

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“For Russians, a family is more than just family,” Matviyenko told journalists. “They used to say that the family is a unit of society. Our country is multinational and multiconfessional, but among all [the constituent] nationalities the family is a marriage of a man and a woman. We would really like future generations to follow the same pattern. Especially against the background of the corrosion that [now] occurs in the world.”

Matviyenko was referring to the liberalization of marriage laws in many Western countries, where gay marriage has been introduced. Putin himself has pointed out that he doesn't want Russia to follow suit.

The idea of banning foreign citizenships and bank accounts for state officials will also find a lot of support. Russians have frequently been outraged at reports of civil servants with expensive foreign properties and multiple passports.

Meanwhile, the desire to mention God in the constitution has been driven by the powerful Moscow Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who specified it did not have to refer solely to the Christian deity. He was supported by Muslim leader Talgat Tadzhuddin and Communist Party boss Gennady Zyuganov.

The amendment on giving away territory would rule out ceding any of the Kuril Islands to Japan, a move that will upset Tokyo. Moscow has been at loggerheads with the Japanese over the issue since the 1940s. It will also make it difficult for any future Russian leader to return Crimea to Ukraine, although this would be extremely unlikely even without the rule.

Putin's demand to enshrine in law Russia's role as the successor state to the USSR is surely inspired by what he perceives as external attempts to downplay the sacrifice made by Russians in defeating Nazi Germany – a victory that came at the cost of around 27 million Soviet lives. In recent times, Moscow has engaged in various diplomatic spats, most notably with Poland, over the issue.

The concept of recognising Russians as the state's founding ethnic group could be a harder sell. Since 1991, Moscow has avoided the sort of ethnic signalling popular in other East European nations. Already, the Mufti of Tatarstan Kamil Samigullin has objected. “I do not see any positive aspects in reflecting in the Constitution the concept of a 'state-forming people' being applied to a single group," Interfax quoted him as saying.  

Tatarstan is a traditionally Muslim region in central Russia, in which ethnic Russians form a minority. “We [the Tatars] are [also] Russians, and we all contributed to the formation of this state and to the preservation of the state borders and the spiritual sovereignty of Russia," Samigullin added. 

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The current constitution dates back to 1993, when then-President Boris Yeltsin introduced it – with Western support – to create a “hyper-presidential system.” It came after the Communist-controlled parliament attempted to impeach the pro-Western leader, and he resorted to military force to hold onto power. 187 people were killed and 437 wounded in the fighting.

Before the April 22 vote, the changes must first get final approval from the Constitutional Court and the national parliament (the Duma).

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