A New Constitution for an Old President: how Putin is changing the state of the nation7 min read
In the past months, the world’s attention was directed towards the US presidential elections and President Trump’s defeat and subsequent refusal to concede. Trump’s campaign against the results and the ensuing nationwide chaos could play right into hands of leaders such as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who not only declared that “the liberal idea has become obsolete,” but might take this instance of chaos to further tighten the screws at home and veil it all under the banner of “stability.”
While Trump has been desperately trying to cling to office by crying election fraud and bringing lawsuits to contest election results, on 23 December 2020 the Russian Duma voted on a bill that eventually nullified Putin’s presidential terms – a change to the constitution ensuring he could legally run for office again, and potentially stay in power until 2036. The bill was designed in accordance with one of the constitutional amendments that came into effect on 4 July 2020, following a nationwide referendum. While analysts pointed to the “annulment” clause as the main reason these revisions were made in the first place, other changes may be more significant and far-reaching.
Unconstitutional constitutional amendments
With a 65% turnout, 78% of Russian citizens approved a diversified package of changes ranging from historical memory to marriage and international law. There are in particular two new concepts that require more detailed attention. One of them is the affirmation that ethnic Russians are the state-forming people of the Russian Federation; and the other, though introduced not in the Constitution, but in the ruling of the Constitutional Court regarding the legality and legitimacy of these amendments, is the so-called “state identity.” The latter is employed to justify and legitimise those revisions concerning the “all-Russian cultural identity,” the interests of Russian citizens abroad and the ethnic state-forming principle. Declaring a single ethnic group as the core of the state in a country where more than 190 such groups live has the potential to alienate a considerable part of the population, and, more importantly, set a precedent of cultural and even political discrimination. By the same token, if ethnic Russian interests are invoked in the name of state identity, all other ethnic interests might easily be sacrificed.
These two conceptual addenda officialise the statist ideology, first introduced by Putin in the 2000s and the “ethnic turn,” started in 2012. While the identity changes follow the 1993 Constitution and acknowledge that Russian citizens are a “multinational people,” as well as their equality in front of the law, it introduces for the first time the concept that ethnic Russians are the state-forming people, thus concluding, at least officially, the Kremlin´s 30-year oscillation between ethnic, civic and civilisation nationalisms. In the 1990s, when state unity was challenged by multiple “national questions,” President Yeltsin addressed a federation with around 190 ethnic groups and 32 ethno-federal units, opting for the civic term of rossiyane, that is, “citizens of Russia,” rather than the ethnic russkie, setting the tone and process for the creation of a civic nation (natsiya).
Putin, on the other hand, rather than focusing on the nation, promoted the idea of a sovereign and paternalistic state, yet followed the same conciliatory line. Ethnic and national elements were usually avoided in the public discourse in exchange for state patriotism and Russia´s greatness (derzhavnost). When Putin came to power in 1999 and set his agenda, he signed the so-called “social contract” with the Russian population, in which the state took responsibility for guaranteeing Russians´ social wellbeing. In effect, this meant lowering the retirement age and increasing social benefits, all in exchange for political loyalty. Through the years, however, the state gradually started to turn from social to military spending, and foreign projects took precedence over domestic policy. At the same time, as far back as 1999, Putin set the agenda for a strong state and its interests when he spoke of derjavnost. In the two decades that have followed, the interests of Putin and his allies came to define the interests of Russia and these often run against the wellbeing of the Russian citizens, as, for instance, the campaign in Syria.
From patriotism to ethnic nationalism
Putin called ethnic Russians the “state-forming people” for the first time in a 2012 presidential campaign article. It was followed by the “unifying mission” of ethnic Russians, and the spiritual and cultural code of Russia as a “state-civilisation,” eventually culminating in the 2014 Crimean Speech, when Putin articulated an ethnic and Orthodox Russianness to justify the annexation. This was the first accomplished instance of messianism, when Russia, under the pretext of defending Russian-speaking Crimeans, seized a foreign territory. It is in this period that the definition of Russianness culminated into the triade Russian language, Orthodoxy, messianism. It seems that the Kremlin tends to play the “national card” in times of domestic crises or in cases of risk-bearing and costly international moves. In such cases, the Kremlin gives more media space to nationalistic groups inside Russia, in the belief that it will eventually be able to control the resulting discourse. The 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine provides one of the clearest examples of this.
By capitalising on the ethnic principle of state-formation, the Kremlin officialises the politicisation of ethnicity, a move that risks unleashing resentment among other ethnic groups, many of which are highly politicised. Privileging one ethnic group over the others runs the risk of creating an ethnic hierarchy within the state and providing legal grounds for exclusion from the polis. Rather, the civic nation is ideally based on the principle of citizenship and civil and political rights guaranteed and protected by the state. In 2016 Putin supported the idea of elaborating a rossiyskaya natsiya, that is, a civic Russian nation, rather than an ethnic Russian one. A rossiyskaya natsiya would be inclusionary of all Russia´s 193 ethnic groups, including the Russians, the Chuvash, and the Ingush, to name just a few.
In 2018, Putin defined the concept “rossiyskaya natsiya” by presidential decree as a “community of free and equal citizens, who, despite belonging to different ethnic, religious and social groups, possess a civic consciousness.” The decree stated that only 84% of Russian population possessed this “civic consciousness.” It provided no indication of how this figure was reached, nor anything about the “consciousness” of the remaining 16%, or whether they shall be excluded from the community altogether.
With the latest constitutional amendments the Kremlin has introduced an additional exclusionary trope – the russkiy-forming element in the name of “state identity.” Rather than paving the way to the creation in Russia of a politically and civically conscious community of citizens, conscious of their sovereignty, of their equal standing next to a state, the Kremlin skilfully gathered the Russian people (narod) around the president in voting revisions that might encroach on their cultural and political rights.
An identity ethnic in form but statist in content
Upgrading ethnic Russians to state-forming people would hardly mean that the Kremlin makes them the political and civic community, endowed with sovereignty. Rather, it seems instead to be looking forward to capitalizing on the Russian language, Orthodoxy and messianism, as inherently Russian characteristics, in its domestic and foreign undertakings. At the same time, justifying the introduction of the concept of “ethnic Russians as the state-forming people” as necessary to guarantee and defend “state identity” implies that the Kremlin can now justify national policies (ones concerning internal migration, language or culture among others) invoking the Constitution. In 2018, for instance, the Duma voted on a bill that made ethnic languages classes in school no longer compulsory, but voluntary – the study of ethnic languages should not, that is, be detrimental to the study of Russian. This, experts believe, would bring to a gradual neglect of ethnic languages among the younger population and thus to erosion of ethnic identity. While art. 69 (2) of the Constitution guarantees the cultural development of all the ethnic groups, these cultures now could be expected to be ethnic in form but statist in content, that is, if needed these groups might be expected to sacrifice their ethno-cultural identity for the “state identity.”