From RBC Daily, Sept. 24, 2020, p. 2. Condensed text:
. . . Russian President [Vladimir Putin] submitted eight bills to the State Duma late on Sept. 22. They are intended as legislative implementation of the constitutional amendments adopted earlier this year [see Vol. 72, No. 27‑28, pp. 3‑7]. The package includes a new law on the cabinet and amendments to existing laws on the prosecution system, the Foreign Intelligence Service [SVR], the Federal Security Service [FSB], the Constitutional Court and other agencies. . . .
One thing that all these bills have in common is that they introduce a “two-actor” system for making political decisions, political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko explained to RBC. “Every decision requires two ‘keys.’ For civilian ministries, the ones who [jointly] make the decision are the president and the Duma. For security, defense and law-enforcement agencies, it’s the president and the Federation Council. The Constitutional Court has the authority to suspend laws adopted by the Federal Assembly. Lastly, there is a bill establishing the primacy of Russia’s national law over international law,” the expert said.
Law on the cabinet.
The president’s draft of a new federal constitutional law on the cabinet defines a new procedure for forming a new government.
• The prime minister, deputy prime ministers and all federal ministers except for the chiefs of security agencies are appointed by the president after they are approved by the State Duma. The candidate for prime minister is nominated by the president, whereas candidates for deputy prime ministers and ministers are nominated by the prime minister.
• The president can fire the prime minister without dismissing the entire cabinet.
• The heads of federal agencies in the executive branch in charge of defense, national security, internal affairs, justice, foreign affairs, emergencies and natural disasters, and public security are appointed by the president after consultations with the Federation Council. The president nominates a candidate, and the upper chamber has a week to respond in writing on whether it approves the nominee.
• The government may be vested with special authority to protect family and children. This includes [legislatively defining] marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The bill shifts some “political” powers from the president to the cabinet, Pyotr Kiryan, head of the social research laboratory at the Institute of Regional Problems, told RBC. “Basically, the idea is to show everybody that although the president and the prime minister used to work in tandem, it will now be the prime minister who is responsible for setting government policies. This may be merely a symbolic change, but it is important nonetheless,” Kiryan said.
Law on the Constitutional Court.
• The bill sets the number of judges on the Constitutional Court at 11, including the chair and the deputy chair. (Currently, the Constitutional Court consists of 19 judges, and the chair has two deputies.)
• The Constitutional Court will now have the authority to examine legislative initiatives to verify their constitutionality. Federal laws [are subject to verification] before they are signed by the president, and local laws before they are officially published.
• The Constitutional Court will have the authority to give its verdict on whether Russia should comply with decisions made by various interstate bodies, or international or foreign courts, if they contradict Russia’s Constitution or “the foundations of public law and order.”
According to Kiryan, the most important change is that the Constitutional Court is now be “charged with checking basically every new regulation to see if it’s constitutional.” Currently, if the president receives a bill on which the two chambers of the Federal Assembly disagree, there are [only] two options available: The president can ask for a new version of the bill to be drafted, or he can refuse to sign it, the expert explains. “But now the president will have an excellent mechanism at hand: He can ask the Constitutional Court to examine the bill, and then reject it citing the court’s ruling. It’s a smart move, because right now the State Duma often ignores objections from the president’s legislative aides. Now it will be harder to do that,” Kiryan says.
Considering that the president works with the Federation Council to appoint judges to the Constitutional Court, this means that the president will now have more authority and control over legislative matters, the expert believes.
The bill makes it possible for the Constitutional Court to rule on whether [Russia has the right] to refuse to comply with rulings by international or interstate courts, adds Konstantin Dobrynin, secretary of the Federal Chamber of Lawyers. “In this case the Constitutional Court – without being asked by the president, the government or the Supreme Court – will have the power to decide whether a particular ruling contradicts the foundations of Russia’s public law and order,” Dobrynin explains. “Most likely, the intention is to protect Russia from another [punitive international ruling like the] Yukos case [see Vol. 72, No. 8, pp. 18‑20]. Yet this directly contradicts Russia’s international commitments and Art. 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.”
In addition, the bill limits the right of ordinary people to petition the Constitutional Court. Under the amended legislation, citizens must go through an appellate court before turning to the Constitutional Court, the expert says.
Lastly, the bill makes it easier to remove a judge from the Constitutional Court, Dobrynin adds. “Other judges will now be able to send the president a complaint against a colleague, which could get that judge defrocked. Personally, I think this clearly violates one of the key principles of the Constitutional Court – that its judges must be independent,” Dobrynin says.
Law on security and law-enforcement agencies.
• According to the president’s bill, chief prosecutors for all Federation members, as well as military and other special prosecution offices, will now be appointed after the president consults with the Federation Council. Currently, they are nominated by the prosecutor general and appointed by the president.
• Chiefs of the SVR and the FSB will be nominated by the president and approved by the Federation Council. (Currently, the president can appoint or dismiss them directly.)
These changes are important, because today the presidential administration has complete control over these appointments, Kiryan says. “But now, when new people are appointed as security chiefs in various regions, sooner or later the Federation Council will take issue with certain nominations. This is very important for the regions, because the security hierarchy is the second most important hierarchy in Russia after the executive one, and it is very important to make it transparent,” the expert says.
Criminal law attorney Roman Novikov thinks that the bills on security and foreign intelligence make the appointment process more democratic. “The president is granting the legislative branch new functions. His nominees for the chiefs of the FSB and SVR will now have to be approved by lawmakers,” Novikov explains. The president used to make such decisions unilaterally, the expert says. “On the other hand, the bill does not explain what will happen if the Federation Council refuses to approve the president’s nominee,” Novikov adds.
Law on the human rights ombudsman.
• The bill says that the president’s ombudsman may not have accounts or deposits in foreign banks or hold foreign citizenship. That official must permanently reside in Russia.
• There will be similar requirements for other government officials and judges. They are forbidden to have foreign citizenship or a residence permit in another country.
Human rights ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova approves the initiative. “The same prohibitions that were established for the top echelon of government authorities will now apply to [the ombudsman] as well: You are not allowed to be a citizen of another country, or to have bank accounts or real estate abroad. The human rights ombudsman is a high official, charged with protecting people. So, it is important for there to be these new requirements for candidates nominated for this position,” she says. . . . Even before, government officials were not allowed to own assets abroad, but this rule existed mainly on paper. [For example,] you could get away with having a residence permit as long as you did not use it. Anton Ilyin, dean of the School of Law at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, explains: “But now the rules will be enforced very strictly. For instance, if you are granted citizenship [by another country], you will have five days to notify your superior, [and either] resign or add the modifier ‘acting’ to your job title.”