Drummed Up Amendments: The President Can't Oppose His Own Reflection
By Mikhail Shevchuk. Republic.ru, Feb. 17, 2020, https://republic.ru/posts/95928. Condensed text:
The date of the nationwide vote on the constitutional amendments has been set. (By a strange whim, it will be April 22, Vladimir Lenin’s birthday – a weekday that the government is even prepared to designate a day off). An appropriations resolution has been issued. (Spending [on the vote] will be no less than on a presidential election – i.e., 14 billion rubles, maybe more.) But what exactly citizens will be voting on is still unclear.
[Russian President] Vladimir Putin met with members of the working group that is drafting the amendments – well, the people charged with pretending to do so, depending on how much you trust the presidential administration’s sincerity – to check on what has already been accumulated in the storage bins of popular wisdom, and the result seems to have discouraged even him.
If you read the transcript [of the meeting], it looks like the participants are taking a test in which they were called one by one to the blackboard and graded on how well they have learned the lessons of the past 10 years. Those who learned them well got high marks; [their] proposals were grade-A statist and patriotic – in the Garibaldian mold of “Out, foreigner!”
Senator Svetlana Goryacheva proposed placing information policy under state control and making it abundantly clear that [this policy] should make it so that all manner of Ukrainians and Poles can no longer disparage us on our television talk shows (although, couldn’t we just stop inviting them [to those shows]?). Her colleague Aleksei Pushkov wants the Constitution to say that Russia is a victorious power. Writer Zakhar Prilepin is proposing that it enshrine Russia’s nuclear power status (“because we have considerable resources”). Actor Vladimir Mashkov wants to ban the transfer of Russian territories (like Prilepin, Mashkov is worried that once Putin is gone, some traitor will come to the Kremlin and immediately start ceding territory). Sergei Bebenin, speaker of the [Leningrad Province] Legislative Assembly, wants to enshrine the federal government’s right to have a hand in deciding the make-up of local self-government. Duma Deputy Olga Batalina is advocating protecting traditional family values.
Naturally, not a word was said about strengthening individual rights or, say, giving regions and municipalities more independence: The Kremlin has not given such lessons. . . .
At some point, even the president himself began to hint that the ideas may have to be dialed back some. We’re not in a rush, Putin said, so the second reading could be postponed a little. Not all of your proposals will make it into the Constitution, he continued. They are all very good, but still – some of them could be regulated with other laws.
And it’s not like Vladimir Putin simply threw up his hands and said: Look I’m a simple guy and will do everything, first, as the lawyers say, and second, only with citizens’ unconditional support. He is disclaiming responsibility ahead of time because he realizes the working group will now come up with something unpredictable: “It is important that citizens become authors of this law of this law by casting their votes,” he said. In one slick move, support for the imposed document is being turned into authorship.
Amending the Constitution was Putin’s idea, someone in the Kremlin will clearly weed out the proposals and the people will vote for everything that’s put in front of them, but it will be ordinary Russians and some behind-the-scenes “lawyers” who bear all responsibility. It doesn’t matter if censorship, monarchy or a holy inquisition is introduced in the country; this is what the people wanted.
But even the referendums on the collapse of the USSR and the declaration of the independence of the republics are still perceived by many not as an expression of the will of the majority, but a con. We’ve been taught for too long that in Russia, the creator of all that exists politically is the central government and no one else, so it can’t just up and hide behind a hastily concocted “popular vote.”
Putin must certainly understand what kind of Pandora’s box he’s opening. But he has now fallen into the trap of his own propaganda, and not just figuratively but literally: Everything that is now being proposed to Putin is thoughts and words that he himself has articulated at one time or another. A mirror is the best civil society an authoritarian president can have; it only reflects and doesn’t talk back.
So [Putin] practically does not dare object to the proposals, only occasionally fine-tuning the most daring ones. A person who has regularly said that if you can’t keep your promises, don’t make them and prided himself on that is now being asked to enshrine the annual indexation of all salaries, pensions and benefits at the highest, constitutional level. And now [Duma Deputy] Galina Khovanskaya is adamantly pushing to add the clarification “taking into account the size of inflation,” which, if you think about it, outdoes all the populism of the “Red Duma” of the 1990s. And Putin is over the fire; he can’t admit that he actually thought of getting by with [just] lofty rhetoric. He has to pretend that this is what he in fact wanted, and appeal to the “lawyers.”
What was conceived as a symbolic act is turning into an obligation. The makeshift propaganda prop, to the surprise of its builders, could very well become a permanent fixture. In two months, it will turn out that Russians really want to live in the TV ad they have been watching for 15 years. . . .
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