Russia’s 2020 Constitutional Amendments

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Author: William Partlett

DOI: 10.21128/1812-7126-2020-3-51-62

Keywords: comparative constitution-making; constitutional nationalism; constitutional personalism; crown-presidentialism; economic rights constitutionalism; popular sovereignty


This article describes the 2020 amendments to the Russian Constitution. These amendments do not formally alter Russia’s fundamental – but still not fully realized – constitutional commitments to democracy, separation of powers, and individual rights found in Chapters 1 and 2 of the Russian Constitution. Yet, these amendments represent the most significant changes to the Russian Constitution since the foundation of Russia’s post-Soviet constitutional order in 1993. Put in comparative perspective, some of the constitutional changes offer potential for the development of Russian constitutionalism. This is particularly the case in a growing comparative trend toward the constitutionalization of economic rights. Most of the amendments, however, are similar to recent examples of abusive constitution-making in Europe, Latin America, and Africa where self-interested elites use constitutional change to entrench power. The process of constitution-making demonstrates the self-interested nature of these changes. The amendments were initiated and drafted by the government elite with no input from the Russian people. Moreover, the all-Russian plebiscite is simply an attempt to manufacture the appearance of popular legitimacy; it has none of the procedural safeguards contained in a formal referendum process. The content of these amendments further demonstrates their self-interested intent. The amendments consolidate the power of the current political elite by further concentrating power in the office of the president. This undermines Russia’s commitment to the “separation of powers.” In addition, the amendments also undermine Russia’s commitment to republican democracy by affording the current Russian President the possibility of a third (and fourth) consecutive term. Finally, the amendments entrench constitutional nationalism, using the constitution as a shield against Russia’s international obligations and denying people who have ever had foreign residency from serving as Russian President. This constitutional nationalism ultimately undermines the Constitution’s foundational commitment to ensuring Russia is “part of the world community.” From a comparative perspective, these amendments follow a trend toward self-interested constitutional change intended to protect the power of the current political elite. In so doing, these amendments further weaken the still-unrealized project of implementing Russia’s foundational constitutional commitments. The continuing failure of this project is more than just a formal legal problem; it continues older political practices that encourage the personalization of power, engender corruption, and weaken institutions. These amendments therefore threaten the Russian Constitution’s core purpose of “reviving the sovereign statehood of Russia and asserting the inviolability of its democratic foundation.” The amendments therefore threaten the still unrealised project of creating a strong, effective, and stable Russian state.

About the author: William Partlett – J.D. in Law, D.Phil. in Soviet History, Associate Professor at Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.

Citation: Partlett W. (2020) Popravki k Konstitutsii Rossii 2020 goda [Russia’s 2020 constitutional amendments]. Sravnitel'noe konstitutsionnoe obozrenie, vol.29, no.3, pp.51–62. (In Russian).


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