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Will Putin’s new constitution amendments mean Moscow ditches its international nuclear commitments?

Will Putin’s new constitution amendments mean Moscow ditches its international nuclear commitments?
Back in the B.C. (Before Corona) period, the biggest story in Russia concerned proposed amendments to the country's constitution. These were designed to spread powers more widely and shape the country's future direction.

The original – forged after bloodshed during an early constitutional 1990s crisis – had created a “hyper-Presidential system” and one of the most prominent of the new proposals provides for strict term limits in the A.P. (After Putin) era, along with zeroing his own clock. It was these aspects that garnered the most international attention.

However, one very important change flew somewhat under the radar: Putting domestic law above any rulings of foreign arbitrators. Which, according to critics, could change Moscow's relationship with various international institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations, or could affect international treaties Russia has signed.

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Now, the country's envoy to the United States has moved to alleviate these fears. “The amendment in no way alters or repeals Article 15 of the Constitution,” which gives Russia’s commitments under international treaties priority over local law, Anatoly Antonov says. The amendment only targets “decisions of foreign or international courts and arbitration panels” which would become unenforceable in Russia if they are found to be unconstitutional.

Russia is a signatory to numerous international agreements. Some of them are important to global security, for instance agreements dealing with the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and with nuclear arms transparency, especially given that the country still maintains the world's largest stockpile of atomic weaponry. 

The proposed amendment is one of several awaiting approval when a nationwide poll can be held. The vote was originally planned for April but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Closing the loophole

Basically, Russia wants to continue to deliver on the promises it made directly when signing various treaties, but also to shield itself from incompetent or corrupt interpretations of their rules, explained Anatoly Torkunov, the head of MGIMO, considered Russia's top university for aspiring diplomats and for lawyers specializing in international law.

“It’s no secret that some senior officials of certain states abuse their significant financial capabilities to twist the norms of particular international agreements on court settlements or the arbitration of conflicts, and also influence arbiters and judges,” he told RT.

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The proposed amendment would close the loophole and, in so doing, will actually strengthen international law, since one of its cornerstones is national sovereignty, he said.

“Just look at the US Constitution. [Maintaining sovereignty] is the primary goal it mandates to the legislative, the executive and the judiciary,” the ambassador noted. “And, notably, the US Constitution doesn’t have anything like the Russian provision enshrining its obligations under international treaties as part of national law.”

Playing by the book

Modern international treaties allow for a member that no longer wants to pack up its tent to leave in an orderly manner, said Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), an influential Moscow-based think tank. This is what Washington DC did when it scrapped the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, for example. Moscow, likewise, can exit any treaty it no longer considers applicable to its national interests, with or without the amendment.

“For instance, we cannot reintroduce capital punishment in our legislation since the rules of the Council of Europe do not allow members that use capital punishment,” he said. “If Russia were to reintroduce it, we would have to leave the Council of Europe.” 

Capital punishment is still technically on the books in Russia, but executions have not been carried out since the late 1990s, due to a moratorium. Sending a convict to death row is now a symbolic act, a court's way to stress the severity of a crime.

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In practice, the more enduring international agreements tend to evolve over time to keep up with changing domestic and global realities, said Konstantin Dobrynin, State Secretary of the The Russian Federal Chamber of Lawyers.

“A good example is the European Convention on Human Rights,” he emphasized to RT. “Since its drafting in 1950, when its provisions came into conflict with the domestic laws of the members of the Council of Europe, the parties adopted additional protocols… And nobody left it,” Dobrynin points out.

So if the amendment is adopted, it will by no means give the Kremlin carte blanche to arbitrarily change its international commitments, he added. Going down that path would make the state an international pariah. This is equally true, for example, for Germany, Italy or Britain – to name a few examples – where relevant courts can rule an international agreement to be in breach of domestic law. Having the stick doesn't mean you have to use it.

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