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12 Dec, 2009 05:43

Russian constitution turns 16

Sixteen years ago Russia adopted its first post-Soviet Constitution, which marked the beginning of a new era in the history of the state: a departure from the Communist dictatorship to democracy.

On December 12, 1993, the Russian constitution was approved by a public referendum, and on December 25 it came into force, replacing the Soviet Brezhnev-era Constitution of 1978. It followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a political stand-off between President Boris Yeltsin and parliament, also known as the Constitutional crisis of 1993.

Constitution history “a thriller”

To find out more on the history of the Constitution and its place in modern Russia, RT spoke with one of the authors of the document.

Oleg G. Rumyantsev, the president of the NGO “Foundation for Constitutional Reforms” said that the process of creating of the document began in 1989 and wasn’t finalized until 1993. Dozens of officials and legal figures – both from Russia, its regions and from foreign countries – took part in the complicated task.

Rumyantsev called the history of the constitution “a thriller”, adding that there has been nothing more exciting in contemporary Russian history

“On the phase of drafting, we put everything on a clear sheet of paper. It was not copying a US model, or a French model,” he said. The main task then was to come up with basic rules and to set up “what the main order for the Russian Federation was” in post-perestroika times.

Initially, it was planned to adopt a new constitution in 1992, he said. In 1990 the Constitutional Commission was set up “and everything went well until the huge political fight” that started in late 1991 – when an August coup attempt was followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December.

In 1993 “the last fight around the constitution” began involving two branches of power.

“The new parliament – the democratically elected parliament – was the supreme authority in the Russian Federation, but President Yeltsin was elected by people also as the supreme authority of the country,” he recalls.

Since there were no constitutional mechanisms or political practice of solving conflicts peacefully at the time, a “sharp” confrontation between Yeltsin and the parliament started.

Meanwhile, “by the summer of 1993, we had two draft constitutions – presidential and parliamentary.” Yeltsin called the Constitutional Assembly which combined those two drafts, taking one third from the presidential draft and “about two thirds from our parliamentary draft – but that was the crucial part”. The two branches of power, however, didn’t come to a consensus.

“The end of this story was the dismantling of the parliament on September 21, 1993. The parliament opposed the move. The Constitutional Court declared that President Yeltsin should be impeached,” Rumyantsev said. All that led to a “fight in the center of Moscow, and a bombardment of the parliament building.”

According to official data, more than 180 people were killed during the crisis of 1993, when Russia was on the brink of a civil war.

From October to December, Rumyantsev said, the constitution draft “was changed towards a much more authoritarian rule, led by the President.” And that was the draft that was finally approved.

Are amendments needed?

Now, sixteen years after the adoption of the constitution, there are still some problems with the implementation of the main law of the state. Rumyantsev is absolutely sure that “the constitution needs three serious changes.”

First of all, “we need to enforce the authorities of the parliament” which can be done by introducing amendments to the constitution. “The parliamentary control of the executive is the weakest point of the current constitution.”

Secondly, it is the protection of the constitution. Those amendments should refer “to the Constitutional Court, the judicial system, the prosecution and law enforcement agencies.”

The third, “weak point of the constitution” relates to unions, Rumyantsev says.

“Today we have a union between Russia and Belarus. Tomorrow we will have a customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. I am absolutely sure that these post-Soviet institutions will become stronger and stronger. We will have a much stronger integration on the post-Soviet space. And I do think that this sector of constitution does not provide any real norms and mechanisms to regulate the interaction between the union authorities and the Russian Federation authorities. This may lead to a problem, to some contradictions,” he said.

So, Rumyantsev concluded, “the constitution is not [divine]: it should be improved, it should become more efficient,” and a public debate into that should be opened.

Listen to the full interview with Oleg Rumyantsev here:

However, Pavel Krasheninnikov, the head of the State Duma's Legislation Committee and former Justice Minister believes that the Russian Constitution – that has already been in force for 16 years – has proven to be quite good.

“…Especially the chapter on rights and freedoms of man [and citizen] is written very well. I would even say that we can not reach to it [its standards] yet,” he told RT.

Even though Krasheninnikov didn’t take direct part in the drafting of the constitution, he was involved in the Supreme Council at that moment and knows well the people who did take part in it.

The main three ideologists of the constitution, according to Krasheninnikov, were Anatoly Sobchak, Sergey Shakhrai and Sergey Alekseev – people “with excellent knowledge in the sphere of civil rights legislation.” That is especially important since the situation with civil rights was and is far from perfect, he added.

As to whether society was ready for the changes the constitution brought, Krasheninnikov said “sometimes the authorities should take the responsibility [for changes] and explain them to society.”

“The constitution outstripped and still outstrips society,” he said.

As to whether all the principles of the constitution work, the official said “I believe they work in 90% of cases.”