A billboard by the Russian Election Committee promoting the July 1, 2020 nationwide referendum on the constitutional amendments removing legal restrictions for Vladimir Putin to maintain his power over the country through 2036. It says: "July 1 - Our Future." (Photo: wikipedia.org)
But in restoring what is very much a Leonid Brezhnev-style constitution, the Russian regionalist says, the Kremlin leader is unwittingly recreating some of the conditions which led to perestroika but in a country which can only aspire to be a superpower but lacks the resources to be one in fact.
As many have pointed out, Putin’s amendments simultaneously contradict other parts of the document and thus weaken it and make declarations that are more aspirational than real. In both respects, the Tallinn-based regionalist says, what Putin is doing now reflects what Brezhnev did nearly half a century ago.
For example, one Putin amendment declares that “the Russian Federation is the legal successor of the USSR on its territory.” That succession was fixed already at the end of 1991 when Russia took the seat of the USSR in the UN Security Council.
“But today we obviously are dealing with a more fundamental ideologically and in terms of world view phenomenon.”
Under this amendment, it is clear that “the Putinist Russian Federation considers itself exactly the same ‘main world power’ as was Brezhnev’s USSR.” And there is another comparison that matters: Brezhnev’s document proclaimed civil rights and freedoms but also mandated ideological unity under the CPSU and in the form of “the Soviet people”.
“Putin’s constitutional remake contains a similar contradiction.” Its unchanged provisions recognize the rights and freedoms of the Russian people, but its new parts mandate, the very same ideological united community, as ‘the Soviet people’” albeit under the name of the civic Russian nation as defined by the Kremlin.
What this means is that while Putin may fantasize about becoming a new Stalin, he is in fact becoming an updated version of Brezhnev. He is like the Soviet leader in two other ways: he oversees an increasingly corrupt ruling class, and he assumes that the people will put up with that and whatever else he wants forever.
In that, and again like in the case of the Communist Party leader, Putin is surely wrong, Shtepa continues.
When Brezhnev pushed through his constitution, even his closest allies in the CPSU no longer believed in the communist future he was predicting. And this gap between what the document said and what the leaders and people believed not only was growing but ultimately became the basis for a challenge to the Soviet regime.
That challenge took the form of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, a program that sought to bring what the Kremlin said and what the people saw closer together, a noble goal but one that he was blocked from completely carrying out. The result, of course, was what Putin calls “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
But instead of learning from that, Putin with his new constitutional amendments is repeating Brezhnev’s mistake. And that means with time, he or his successors will face a similar challenge for similar reasons. The first signs of that have already appeared not in Moscow as much as in the regions and republics beyond the ring road.
Muscovites appear prepared to swallow the amendments, but people in the regions and especially in the republics do not. They have protested in various ways about the entire notion of changing the constitution because they no longer want to live under rulers who proclaim one thing and do another.
“But,” Shtepa says, “Putin himself has become a hostage of the system he established. He cannot allow free elections and real federalism because his ‘vertical’ would immediately collapse. In attempting to make his regime ‘eternal,’ [however,] he has put in place societal expectations of ‘a new Perestroika.’”
Earlier this year, Soviet dissident Sergey Kovalev recalled that one of his jailors told him to stop complaining about the constitution. The Soviet official said the reason is simple: “the Soviet constitution was written not for you but for American negroes so that they will understand well how happily the Soviet people live”.
The Brezhnev constitution didn’t have that effect, but it did have one that Soviet officials like Kovalev’s persecutors didn’t expect or want.