December 13, 2013
Embassy of Russia, 2650 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC

On December 13, 2013, the Center on Global Interests co-hosted a seminar with the Embassy of the Russian Federation and the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. Following the Day of the Constitution, December 12, the Embassy hosted a luncheon and panel discussion with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and William Pomeranz, Kennan Institute Deputy Director, moderated by CGI President Nikolai Zlobin.

In his introduction, Ambassador Kislyak highlighted the centrality of the individual in the 1993 constitution. This signaled a major change from the Soviet-era constitutions, which were centered on ideology and the preeminence of the Communist party. In reaching its 20th anniversary, the Ambassador noted that the Russian document has already outlived the age of the average constitution. He also pointed out that the constitution is now a generation old – young Russians today have never lived under another document. Ending his remarks on an optimistic note, he stated his belief that the current constitution will endure to guide the modern Russian state for a long time.

Nikolai Zlobin also spoke positively about the 1993 constitution as a great step towards democracy and the rule of law in the country. He noted a key difference between American and Russian perspectives on the role of constitutions: while Americans expect the tenets of the constitution to be implemented in daily life, Russians see the document as more of an ideal for the state and society to aspire to. Although the constitution is not perfect, Zlobin contended that it was a major achievement as the “first serious document” in Russia’s post-Soviet political culture.

In his keynote presentation, William Pomeranz shared his expertise on Russian law to provide context and insight on the constitution, acknowledging it as a momentous achievement while pointing out a few of its distinctive features and challenges. Although the 1993 constitution was thoroughly “new,” Pomeranz noted that new constitutions are always written, at least in part, as a reaction to the preceding system. In Russia, this system was characterized by a dominant legislative branch and a belief in the primacy of the Communist party. First, in response to the overly powerful Supreme Soviet—the legislature of the previous years—, the new constitution changed the balance of power to create a “super-presidential” system. This gave Russia an incredibly strong executive branch while forcing the weakened legislative branch to share its law-making duties with the other branches of government. Second, the concept of the “state” was given a prominent role in the constitution, in part a reaction to state disintegration and federal powerlessness witnessed at the end of the Soviet period. Western audiences often have trouble understanding the role of the state as the central power-holder in the constitution, which makes its prominence one of the most unique characteristics of the Russian document.

On the central question, whether the constitution is built to last, Pomeranz noted that even the Russian “founding fathers” themselves are torn on the subject. Some believe the constitution was only meant to be a “transitional document,” while other see the document having long-term staying power, either with or without amendments. Pomeranz concluded that if the current constitution is to last, Russians will finally have to come to a national consensus on the document, something that could be aided by improving the instruction of constitutional law to both the general citizenry and legal professionals.

A thoughtful and lively discussion followed the presentation, covering the nature of Russian federalism, the role of the Prime Minister, and the role of the United States during this turbulent time for the Russian state. Mr. Wayne Merry, a lead political analyst at the American Embassy in Moscow during this period, shared his recollections of the constitutional process. He noted that, while observers in Washington were focused on economic reform, the effort to help the Russian state find legitimacy through the constitutional process should have been the main goal for the State Department.

Despite some of the kinks in the existing constitution, including vague property rights and an incredibly complex federal system, the panelists and discussants agreed that it would be unlikely to change dramatically in the foreseeable future. The real test of the constitution’s staying power, the panelists said, will come when there are different political parties vying for control under its legal umbrella.