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On 8 December, Andrey Klishas, the Head of the Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Legislation, made a point in an interview with Vedomosti which was already tacitly understood by Russia-watchers, but still shocking to hear. In answer to a question on why the partial mobilisation decree had not been repealed now the process was completed, he explained to the Kremlin-friendly correspondent there was no need for legislation: ‘There is no greater power than the President’s words.’ So there it is – Russia is by definition a dictatorship. For the unawares reader, Vedomosti was one of Russia’s leading, intelligent and independent newspapers; it fell afoul of the authorities and today is a government propaganda channel.
This matters – a lot – although one is left pondering whether the Russian president, confounded by his foolish ‘special military operation’ fully understands the gravity of what he is doing to his own country. When Putin annexed by decree four regions of Ukraine following pseudo-referendums he did more than raise profound affront to international law (and insult to adult sense supposed to believe in ridiculous Russian ‘99% referendums’). As Mikhail Remizov, President of the Russian Institute of National Strategy, has explained, the Russian president removed at a stroke the very constitutional foundation of the Russian Federation:
‘The Russian Federation was born as a state whose cornerstone of legitimacy was the international system. It was one of the republics of the USSR based on the status quo of mutual recognition…Now the Russian Federation can no longer draw its legitimacy from the post-Soviet status quo. It draws legitimacy from its own history, [it] becomes historical Russia.’
What Remizov was referring to, coincidentally, marked its 31st anniversary on 8 December, the same day Klishas was advising the Vedomosti correspondent not to trouble himself with laws, as the president’s word was above law.
100 grams of Belorussian cognac
On this day, Boris Yeltsin, Stanislav Shushkevich (Belorussian SSR1), and Leonid Kravchuk (Ukrainian SSR) met confidentially at the Stalin-era country lodge at Belovezhskaya Pushcha near Minsk where Warsaw Pact meetings were customarily held, and dissolved the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The meeting was necessarily furtive because President Mikhail Gorbachev – desperately seeking ways to save the Union – was being ousted, not so much by coup d’état but by a flurry of signatures on 18 Articles that ended the great communist experiment (Yeltsin reportedly drank a toast after signing each article and ended up drunk; Shushkevich denies this improper version of history and states a strict 100 grams of Belorussian cognac was drunk at the end of the signing ceremony).
The preamble of the document stated ‘the USSR as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality no longer exists.’ Article 1 of the Agreement read: ‘The High Contracting Parties shall constitute the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).’ (In fact, a CIS was never realised as none of the now independent former SSRs wished to enter into an association with Russia) The agreement stated a desire to develop cooperation in political, economic, humanitarian, cultural and other fields. Parties guaranteed their citizens equal rights and freedoms, irrespective of their nationality or other differences; and accepted and respected the territorial integrity of each other and the inviolability of existing borders within the Commonwealth. [underlining added]
On 5 December 2022, Russian daily Gazeta.ru published an interview with Stanislav Shushkevich on the anniversary date (both Shushkevich and Kravchuk passed away this year; none of the protagonists of the momentous event are now alive). Shushkevich said, with an eye on the Russian troop build-up on the Ukrainian border: ‘I especially remember the fifth article…It touches boundaries. It clearly states that borders are respected and no nails.’ Well, not in Putin’s book.
The Belovezhskaya Accords were subsequently confirmed in a wider meeting of the republics in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, on 21 December (there were 16 SSRs including Russia in the USSR). Then on 25 December 1991 the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR approved the law ‘On renaming of the state of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic’, which took effect immediately, and gave the new name of the Russian Federation (Russia). This is the constitutional foundation of Russia which President Putin has destroyed by asserting ‘Russia’ is no longer the inheritor nation of the RSFSR, created by mutual accord with the other SSRs through Belovezhskaya Accords. Rather, it is ‘historical Russia’, a concept not recognised in the UN Charter or international law, and which by implication means mouthfuls of other countries and peoples taken by military force. ‘Historical Russia’ is Russia as perpetual warfare state.
A close observer of Russia over the last few months will have noticed the Russian president has become a factory line of decrees. This quixotic industry that seeks to control the uncontrollable (a war) by commanding this or that, would have been recognised by Alexander I’s most gifted minister, Mikhail Speransky. In a survey of the empire commissioned by the tsar (but not released until 1961 because Speransky’s candour was considered too controversial), he wrote: ‘The fundamental principle of Russian government is the autocratic ruler who combines within his person all the legislative and executive powers, and who disposes unconditionally all of the nation’s resources. There are no physical limits to this principle.’2 He continued:
‘Under autocratic rule there can be no Code of Laws…What these governments call Codes and laws are nothing but the arbitrary decisions of the sovereign authority, prescribing to the citizens their duties for a certain period of time, i.e. until the autocratic will chooses to change or otherwise circumscribe them…’
Speransky wrote those words almost 200 years ago but he could be describing the court of Vladimir Putin.
Russians would throw their arms up in horror and protest a comparison between Putin and the United Russia Party and Adolph Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party.
The unravelling of Russia’s war in Ukraine has provoked the Russian president into sliding from the sham democracy but in reality a Kremlin autocracy buttressed by the United Russia Party, to de facto dictatorship. This is not the absolutism of 18th century monarchs or tsars. L’etat c’est moi has become la loi c’est moi, or the condition of mid-20th century dictatorships like Stalin’s regime. Russians joke that whatever political party is formed it always ends up being the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union). This has become true of United Russia, now an instrument of dictatorship and not a representative political party. In occupied parts of Ukraine, United Russia officials, alongside the FSB, have been the foot soldiers of repression and efforts to stamp out Ukrainian identity.
Russians would throw their arms up in horror and protest a comparison between Putin and the United Russia Party and Adolph Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party. Yet the latter exploited democratic frameworks and institutions to secure power, and once in power dissolved the frameworks and institutions in the acid of a war-mongering dictatorship and cult of a supreme leader, a Fuhrer – where is the difference?
The hope that removing Putin from office may offer resolution (how and with whom?) may be misplaced. The Russian president is representative not atypical of Russian culture. As Tibor Szamuely wrote in the 1970s in The Russian Tradition:
‘Throughout the centuries the idea of legality and liberty, of the rule of law and the rights of an individual have been outside the compass of the Russian tradition…In this connection it is worth mentioning that the whole voluminous corpus of Russian political literature, from Radishchev to Lenin, contains not a single work on legal theory, constitutionalism, the rights of man, the natural law, or kindred subjects. This was all considered so utterly irrelevant and unimportant that no progressive man would ever give it thought.’3
And no autocrat or dictator, obviously, would give it thought. This contrasts with the European tradition (Grotius, Milton, Hobbes Locke, Pufendorf, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Bentham, J S Mill, Tom Paine and many others) for whom legal theory in its broadest sense was central to their political writings.
When Yeltsin handed over power to a youthful Putin in December 1999 he said, tearfully: ‘Look after Russia.’ Fifteen years later, in an anniversary interview with Rossiskaya Gazeta, he remarked:
‘Everything that happened then in December 1991 is known by the hours and minutes…We must not forget that this was a special period in the life of the country, when, after decades of stagnation, lack of freedom, and secrets, people had a new feeling: we are the masters of our country. It depends on us how we will continue to live. People wanted change … And it was impossible to betray the trust of tens of millions of people…’
What happened to that trust?
Cover photo: By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115643698
Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer. He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review. He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.