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Russia’s constitutional shake-up raises major human rights concerns

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistFriday 31 January 2020

Russia’s annual state of the nation address traditionally sets the country’s political agenda for the year ahead. This year, on 15 January, along with the usual pledges to revitalise a stagnating economy and increase social spending, President Vladimir Putin – who is serving his fourth term in office and is legally required to step down in 2024 – proposed sweeping constitutional changes. Key among them was granting greater powers to parliament and its advisory body, the State Council, which Putin currently chairs.

Following the speech, Putin’s long-time ally, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and his cabinet abruptly resigned. The Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, voted in favour of the amendments package on 23 January. The measures are expected to be passed in a second reading on 11 February. The President proposed holding a popular vote on the reforms, which could take place in the next few months.

‘The proposed amendments offer nothing with regard to strengthening democratic institutions or guarantees of human rights protection,’ says Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defence Centre in Voronezh, Russia. She says another proposed reform – to prioritise domestic legislation over rulings from international bodies – is particularly concerning. The proposal effectively beefs up a law passed in 2015 that allowed Russia’s Constitutional Court to overthrow decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) if they were deemed unconstitutional.

‘We can expect that this provision, now with reference to the Constitution, will be used more often in politically sensitive cases, blocking the execution of judgments by the European Court,’ says Arapova. She believes it could also deter even more Russian judges from referring to the European Convention on Human Rights or case law of the ECtHR: ‘The Russian legal system shifts further away from the European one now and [this] creates more difficulties in providing effective defence of human rights on both the domestic and international level.’

The proposed amendments offer nothing with regard to strengthening democratic institutions or guarantees of human rights protection

Galina Arapova
Director, Mass Media Defence Centre, Voronezh, Russia

The 2015 law followed a 2014 ECtHR ruling ordering Russia to pay €1.9bn to shareholders in oil company Yukos that Russia refused to enforce. ‘It will be interesting to see how Russia continues or doesn’t continue implementing the Court’s decisions now,’ says Kadri Liik, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. ‘The question is whether they will still be implementing them as a general practice. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only reason to keep [Russia] in the Council of Europe. For many Russians, that’s the only source of justice ultimately.’

This proposal comes at a tense time for Russia’s relationship with the Council of Europe, which finally readmitted the country in June 2019 after a two-year standoff over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Over this period, Russia withdrew its annual contributions – which contribute towards the running of institutions like the ECtHR – costing the Council around €90m. Historically, Russia has always had the highest volume of cases before the ECtHR. In 2018, the Court reduced its caseload against the country for the first time, closing a record 385 cases. However, by the end of 2019 there were still 1,683 cases pending resolution.

Anne Ramberg is the former general secretary for the Swedish Bar Association and Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Institute’s Council. She says moves by Russia to prioritise domestic legislation raise wider rule of law concerns across Europe. ‘It is of course a disgrace and a serious backlash for international law in general and human rights and humanitarian law specifically,’ she says. ‘The unpleasant developments in Russia and some other European countries will in various ways undermine the European Court's legitimacy. Some want to leave the European Convention on Human Rights…and in some countries like Russia, the national courts are urged not to follow the European Court's rulings and even review them.’

It seems clear that, in making these changes, Putin’s aim is to retain power and influence. ‘He effectively did this before when he did the ‘castling swap’ with Medvedev when he became prime minister for a term,’ says Eimear O’Casey, Senior Analyst at Control Risks. ‘He could’ve done that again without changing the constitution, but clearly he has decided at this point that he needs to formalise any power that he might take on in a new function.’

Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and a prominent campaigner on Russian human rights issues, says the latest developments show the President is taking a different tack. ‘Most Russians saw right through [the swap with Medvedev] and saw that it was an abuse of democracy,’ he says. ‘Putin understands that if he tried that again he might end up having a revolution on his hands. Therefore, he had to come up with another alternative.’

A new cabinet has already been formed, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov all retaining their posts. The head of Russia’s tax service, Mikhail Mishustin, was a surprise replacement for Medvedev, who Putin has already earmarked as his deputy on the State Council. In a move widely supported by anti-corruption experts, long-standing Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika was replaced by Igor Krasnov, deputy head of the committee that has investigated high-profile cases such as the murder of politician Boris Nemtsov, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta journalist Anastasia Baburova.

Image: Kremlin.ru - licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.