Lev Ponomarev: Rewriting or defending the present Constitution? [Radio Sol]

posted 18 Dec 2017, 02:32 by Website Service   [ updated 18 Dec 2017, 02:35 ]

21 November 2017

Lev Ponomarev, head of the For Human Rights NGO [pictured left] talks to Valentina Ivakina of Radio Sol 

Source: Radio Sol

IVAKINA – A draft law has been submitted to the State Duma, calling for a Constitutional Assembly to be summoned. Journalists have written that such an Assembly could alter the basic sections of the Constitution. Others say this was just a form of self-promotion by one of the Duma deputies and we shouldn’t expect anything to come of it.

It’s not the first time that people have begun talking about a Constitutional Assembly, but so far it has never led to any real change. How do you regard this news?

PONOMAREV – I cannot say which of those alternatives I believe. We have a Constitution and it is not that easy to apply. In order to change it we must hold a Constitutional Assembly. However, the law regulating such an assembly has never been adopted. That is why people who want to change the Constitution, for various reasons, start such conversations. The proposal was made by Vladimir Bortko. He is a film director, a Communist deputy, and for some reason or other (I don’t know why) he already has the support of Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats. When Zhirinovsky supports something, we know nothing good will come of it.

What, however, is the issue here? Let’s talk a little about the Constitution and then turn to our congress in defence of the Constitution. The second section of the Constitution of the Russian Federation concerns human rights. It is brilliantly written from the standpoint of a human rights defender. It drew on the best experience of European countries and, therefore, gives human rights a legislative defence.

Sections 1 and 3 describe the basic organisation of our State, i.e. the federative structure of the Russian Federation, although almost each year we witness deviations from that structure. And almost every year certain amendments to our legislation are made that violate the federative aspect of our State. Those sections lay down a separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Therefore, I consider that the first three sections of the Constitution should not be altered.

Even among democrats, however, there are critics who say the president has too much power. Our Constitution, in other words, is that of a rigidly presidential republic and this section should be changed. Perhaps, I would be ready to discuss an amendment to the Constitution in this respect. Yet, understanding the situation within Russia, we say leave the Constitution alone: we realise that if changes are made to the Constitution – even if something noble is proposed, for example, a shift from a presidential to a parliamentary republic – others will make changes in different sections of the Constitution. Therefore, we consider that now is not the time.

I know how many would like to rewrite the Constitution, reducing the rights of citizens in favour of the State. They want our citizens to have even fewer rights so that we can have an “autocracy” and in place of citizens there will be subjects of this autocratic State. That is why, in the nearest future, we shall hold a congress in defence of the Constitution.

IVAKINA – We’ll return to the Constitution later. Vladimir Bortko who made the proposal about the Constitutional Assembly, says that the present Constitution was written by “liberals”, and this is allegedly one of its minuses.

PONOMAREV – Liberalism is a political trend. You must understand what it is he doesn’t like in this “liberal” Constitution. Most of all, he dislikes citizens having too many rights.

IVAKINA – Let me read out something quoted [from Bortko] in the media: “The Constitution imposes a taboo on the establishment of values at the State level. In their place there is only a strangely expressed phrase about ‘universal values’. For the Constitution, this, to put it mildly, is not enough.”

Bortko also noted that the constitution of the Russian Federation “in no way defines the place of the Russian nation”. “The Tatar nation, for example, the Chechen, the Yakut and their republics are there. Russia even concludes treaties with them on its own behalf, but not on behalf of the Russian people.” These are some of the quotes that appeared in the media.

PONOMAREV – I think that’s all nonsense. If you examine [the Constitution] closely, there is reference to a “single multinational people” of Russia. The main points of the State’s organisation are prescribed there on behalf of Russia’s single multinational people. We understand that Bortko believes that people have too much freedom. This, of course, is a fundamental position. The rights of the citizen in the Constitution are much more important than the rights of any association of citizens, including the State itself. When the President takes his oath of office, he starts by saying that he is the guarantor of citizens’ rights and freedoms, and swears by the Constitution.

Of course, citizens’ rights and freedoms must be protected, and we will not allow the Constitution to be revised – as human rights activists, I mean, and I hope that the majority share my view. If there is an open discussion about how citizens’ rights ought to be inscribed there, for example, and should nations be more important than citizens, I know that many want it stated that ours is an Orthodox [Christian] State. It is very clearly written in our Constitution, however, that we do not have a State ideology. By the way, the Constitution does not say that liberalism is the State ideology; and in this sense, I think, Bortkov is wrong. There are too many people who want to prescribe a State ideology in the Constitution.

In the early 1990s, I was one of the participants in the Constitutional Assembly: I was then a deputy of the Russian Federation. We clearly wrote that there is no State ideology, no State religion – ours is a secular State. We shall continue to defend those positions and, I hope, we will be the majority.

IVAKINA – Let’s talk about the event at the weekend. We’ve already mentioned the congress of which you will be organiser and at which you will talk about human rights. Can you describe this gathering in more detail and explain why it needs to take place?

PONOMAREV – It’s called the All-Russian Congress for the Protection of Human Rights, and it is taking place in Moscow at the Cosmos Hotel on 26-27 November. The main event is on Saturday, 26 November. On Sunday, 27 November there will be a summing up.

The backbone of the organising committee is the Human Rights Council of Russia. It isn’t well known, but it has existed since 2011. It is a round table of the main human rights organisations, made up of individuals who manage those bodies: it isn’t an association of legal entities but rather the people.

Who will take part? Let me name them. Ludmila Alexeyeva will be there from Moscow Helsinki Group; Alexander Cherkasov, currently head of the Memorial Human Rights Centre (HRC); Oleg Orlov, a board member of Memorial HRC; Svetlana Gannushkina, who runs another NGO [the Civic Assistance Committee]; Sergei Kovalev, head of the International Memorial Society; Igor Kalyapin and Natalia Taubina, who also run major human rights organisations [Committee against Torture and Public Verdict, respectively]; Valery Borshchev of the Moscow Helsinki Group; Lilya Shibanova and Grigory Melkonyants, who head Golos, the human rights organisation which observes elections. And I’m part of the organising committee. This is the second congress of its kind in the history of modern Russia. The first congress took place in January 2001.

Then it wasn’t just the All-Russian Congress for the Protection of Human Rights: it was the First Extraordinary All-Russian Congress of that name. This was because a little less than a year earlier a group of former FSB agents, headed by Vladimir Putin, had come to power. The war in Chechnya, the 2nd Chechen war, was then in its second year. It led to a huge number of victims, and human rights activists did everything to try and stop this war. At that first Congress we didn’t just discuss the current state of affairs. We mainly talked about the war, and pretty much said that Russia didn’t expect any good to come of the country being run by former KGB agents. Unfortunately, all our predictions are now coming true.

From a country, which in the 1990s was, for better or worse, at least moving towards democracy, we now see that all democratic institutions in Russia are being phased out. Therefore, we decided to hold a second Congress, especially since presidential elections are on the horizon, to say clearly how we assess the human rights situation in the country. We’ve adopted as the main slogan for the Congress, the call to “Respect the Constitution”. That’s what Soviet dissidents demanded in the USSR.

To be precise, it was then phrased “Respect Your Constitution”. Human rights activists of the Soviet period did not believe that the Constitution at that time was theirs or that their opinions had been considered in its formation. Yet strange as it may sound, even that Soviet, totalitarian constitution did prescribe some democratic norms. Even in Stalin’s times, strange as it sounds. As such, dissidents had the right to say, “Respect Your Constitution and observe the democratic norms it prescribes”. They were vague, but they were there. Elections were included, although in Soviet times there were no elections. Now, we are holding another congress and saying “Respect” – one would like to say, “Your Constitution” but it’s already “ours”. This was the Constitution adopted in 1993. Its first three sections talk about the structure of the State and, in the 2nd section, human rights and they are fully consistent with what Russia’s human rights activists would like to see. We’ve already discussed this in the programme today. That’s why we’re not saying “Yours” or “Ours” but “Respect the Constitution”.

The situation, in our opinion, is intolerable. The siloviki seize more and more power in the country every day while we, ordinary citizens, encounter ever more violence.

I can name thematic panels that will be held throughout the day: the law-enforcement system and human rights – that refers to the Federal Penitentiary Service, the National Guard and the Police; freedom of assembly and association; freedom of expression and the media. The moderators will be journalists. Perhaps, you’d like to hear who the panel members will be: Stanislav Kucher, Leonid Nikitinsky, Aleksandr Ryklin and Igor Yakovenko. A break for lunch, followed by employment rights, and social protests. We shall focus on social rights separately; there will be a separate panel on medicine and education; then a panel on elections, free and fair elections. At the end there’ll be a summing up of our findings.

IVAKINA – So, you are taking some events in Russia and putting them up for discussion by this Human Rights Council and those who are coming to the All-Russian Human Rights Congress?

PONOMAREV – To begin with the moderators of these panels will speak first. We’ve already identified them; they are preparing their contributions. They will be quite short, of course. Then there will be a discussion in which the audience can take part, with short speeches as part of the discussion. We’ve invited our official human rights activists. Mikhail Fedotov [chair of Presidential Human Rights Council] has agreed to deliver a 3-4-minute speech of welcome at the beginning of the Congress. I would like to emphasise that members of the Presidential Human Rights Council will serve as moderators on almost all the panels. I think that is quite important. Let’s take freedom of assembly, for example: one of the moderators will be Sergei Krivenko, a member of the Human Rights Council. A moderator of the freedom of expression panel will be Leonid Nikitinsky.

Translated by Chloe Tennant and Matthew Quigley