20th anniversary of Russian Constitution stirs old debates

R.G. Gidadhubli (left) Vladimir Dementiev (centre) and Rajeev Deshpande (right). Source: Alexandra Katz

R.G. Gidadhubli (left) Vladimir Dementiev (centre) and Rajeev Deshpande (right). Source: Alexandra Katz

At a seminar in Mumbai, Indian and Russian scholars discussed the Russian Constitution and the state of democracy in both countries.

A seminar marking the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Russian Constitution at Mumbai’s Russian Centre of Science and Culture (RCSC) on December 11, stirred debates on democracy and the political course taken by Russia in the last two decades.

At the seminar organized by the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, and the RCSC, Indian and Russian scholars discussed two decades of the impressive but complicated and often painful path that Russia has been following since 1993. The scholars touched upon many topics from the resource-dependent economy and resource nationalism of Russia to the evolution of a multi-party political system and even the growth of religious consciousness in Russian society.

“As you know the Constitution is the main law of our country, of course it’s not ideal but it works,” said Indologist Alina Novikova. “It worked for twenty years already and the main reflections are the rising living standards of the people, the stability and unity of the state.”

The constitutional crisis of 1992-1993 caused by the conflict between executive and legislative powers marked a key turning point in the history of post-Soviet Russia. Though it resulted in hundreds and, according to various sources, thousands of people killed or injured during the upheaval and storming of the parliament building in Moscow in October 1993, it also lead to adoption by referendum of a new Constitution.

The 1993 Constitution gave the president more power, divided the parliament into two houses with Federation Council as an upper chamber and State Duma as the lower chamber. The constitution specified the top values, rights and freedoms of the citizens, establishing that observing and protecting of the rights of a person and a citizen is a liability of the state.

Transition

“These two decades of transition from Soviet Union which was an advanced socialism and was expected to reach communism - back to capitalism, which is in fact a reversal of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, was very important for the country,” Prof. R.G. Gidadhubli, Adjunct Professor of the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies said. “But this transition for establishing political democracy and market economy was difficult and painful for Russia as well as all former socialist republics of the former USSR. There were many problems and challenges, some of them still persist.”

Dr. Sanjay Deshpande, director of the Eurasian studies centre, noted that since 1999 when Vladimir Putin came into power there had been no major conflicts between the parliament and the executive that reconfirms the state of political stability in modern Russia.

“The strong presidency suits the political system of Russia,” Deshpande said.  “As I always say, Russians like very powerful leaders. And Putin is the one, aiming to bring back the glory to the country as many Russians still feel that they have lost the status of superpower.”

Drawing parallels

Looking at the Russian and Indian constitutions, scholars find many things in common. Both constitutions support the concept of federal system broadly, both incorporate the provisions of Montesquieu’s doctrine of separation of powers, both support dividing legislature power into two chambers, promote political pluralism and secular credentials, protect religious right of citizens and guarantee of the fundamental rights.

“The constitutions of these two countries promise good governance for their people and the ideas of welfare state,” Prof. Deepak Makhija, of R.D.National College said. “Both constitutions promise democracy though have adopted different natures of democracy:  India adopted the system of parliament democracy while Russian Constitution is a presidential democracy where president a real head of executive and is directly elective by the people.”

The concept of democracy, a part and parcel of Russian Constitution, provoked the most passionate debates.  “How can Russia be compared with India? Is Russia at all a democracy, apart from what is stated in its Constitution?” a political science student asked.

The scholars agree that practical implementation of the democratic principles stated in a constitution may be questionable in many countries proclaiming democracy, including both Russia and India.

 Myths of democracy

“Our democracy in Russia may have some minuses, you may call it young, but it’s not a single party power, we can dispute, we can express different opinions”, Vladimir Dementiev, director of the RCSC told RIR.

He added that not everyone in India knows the realities of politics in Russia, hinting at the fact that many Indians still believe the Soviet Union exists or that Russia is still a communist state. “Indians are mostly interested in their own country. But the intellectuals are of course more informed about the situation in Russia, and they often ask questions, they understand that what some western media depicts is not the ultimate truth,” Dementiev said.

He recalled losing the “feeling of euphoria” about American democracy, which many Russians had in 1990s, when NATO authorized air strikes against Serbia in 1999. “If we talk about democracy in India, I feel, India has more democratic traditions. However, Indians sometimes are infatuated with procedures and forget that one can ruin the cause under the procedures,” Dementiev added citing  the Churchill's famous dictum: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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