The fate of public referendums to be decided by new Duma

bellona archive

Publish date: December 3, 2007

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - Amendments to the Russian law “On Referendums” were nixed from a second and third reading of the legislation just prior to this weekend’s parliamentary elections, casting a dark shadow over whether the will of the Russian public will be taken into account under the new formation Russia’s state Duma

The legislation, which was proposed by United Russia party members Vladimir Gruzdev, Valery Grebennikov and Alexander Moskaltsom, prevents public referendums concerning “the exclusive competence of the agencies of state authority” – which, in short, completely excludes Russian citizens from taking part in any government decision.

“Such general formulations are not acceptable for inclusion in laws,” said Bellona lawyer Olga Krivonos. “All rights are left to those who form legislation.” By this logic, said Krivonos, the decision to build a nuclear power plant could go ahead without ever consulting the public that would be affected by it.

In the opinion of environmentalists, referendums on large-scale construction issues and dangerous installations – nuclear power plants, hydro-technical installations, chemical and metallurgical plants – are absolutely necessary. This notion was incorporated in an open letter to political parties that was circulated and signed by 62 environmental organisations last November.

The greens demanded that referendums on such large-scale projects be made mandatory and that corresponding amendments to legislation on referendums be brought into effect. Six parties of the eleven allowed into this past weekend’s parliamentary elections – the Communists, Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces, Fair Russia, Citizens’ Power, and Patriots of Russia) ran on a platform of solving ecological issues. The Kremlin-backed United Russia party altogether ignored the ecologists’ open letter.

The State Duma Committee on Constitutional Legislation, which has struggled with the issue of referendums, noted that the interpretation of “the exclusive competence of the agencies of state authority” does not exist within Russian legislation and could lead to wide interpretation of the formulation itself. This conclusion, however, did not prevent the committee from adopting the amendments on first reading.

Societal loophole

“I have always said that referendums are a powerful weapon for environmentalists,” said prominent Russian environmentalist Alexei Yablokov in an interview with Bellona Web. “We deployed them in Kostroma and other places, but the authorities soon put together that referendums were a loophole that was not under their control.”

The Russian Constitution proclaims that referendums are “the highest form of direct authority in Russia.”

Some 5000 referendums have taken place in Russia since 1990.The majority of them were arranged, as it were, “from above” – concerning issues such as uniting administrative elements and approval of city regulations. Only 120 referendums at a local level have been initiated by citizens themselves within that timeframe.

The absolute majority of these referendums were called in order to halt environmentally dangerous projects. These referendums allowed for wide public discussion of environmental problems. In 1989 through 1993, following the Chernobyl disaster, a wave of anti-nuclear referendums were held in the northern and southern Urals, the Russia Far East, the Karelia Region north of St. Petersburg, and in central Russia. The overwhelming majority of those who turned out spoke out against the development of nuclear power, preventing the construction of nuclear power plants in their regions.

In October of 2000, droves of environmental organisations turned out against the import of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) into Russia. Some 2.5 million signatures were gathered in order to force the matter to a public referendum – 500,000 signatures more than necessary to force a referendum.

But the referendum never came off: Russia’s Central Election Committee tossed aside some 600,000 signatures for reasons as obscure as poor handwriting, and the bill to import SNF became law in 2001 – signed into effect by President Vladimir Putin.

“Government authority deals with a ridiculous casuistry that nonetheless has a concrete goal – axing referendums,” said Dmitry Vorobyov of St. Petersburg’s Centre for Independent Sociological Studies.

According to Vorobyov, the amendments are cause for a fundamental misunderstanding: in recent times, referendums, because of more complex bureaucracy, the efforts of bureaucrats themselves and hurdles to their progression, referendums have all but ceased to exist.

Russia’s Duma in 2002 passed a law forbidding nationwide referendums in years preceding parliamentary and presidential elections.

Warning shot

In the explanatory notes accompanying the legislation, it is noted that the amendments were developed “with the aim of fulfilling decrees of the (Russian) Constitutional Court.” Nonetheless, the suggestions of the legislation clearly contradict the decision of the court that the deputies are basing their argument on.

On March 21, the Constitutional Court ruled in a case initiated by the Communist Party that citizens have the right to initiate referendums on issues relative to changes in the federal budget that have not yet become law.

The Communists had earlier in the spring of 2005 tried to hold a referendum, but had been refused 15 out of the 17 questions they intended to ask in the referendum by the Central Election Commission. The Commission ruled that the formulation of the majority of the questions had violated laws on referendums because they could attract “changes in the internal financial obligations of the government.”

Instead of widening the possibilities of holding referendums, Duma deputies narrowed the possibilities to such a degree that they are nearly impossible to hold. It is worth nothing that the authors of the amendments make no secret of their sympathies:

“We have fired a warning shot at the intentions of those citizens who strive to realise their party and political conditions and destabilise the situation in the government,” said Grebennikov in an interview with the state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazata.

United Russia representatives refused to answer questions about future plans of the party relative to the legislation. “The members of the United Russia party can only give comment when they become deputies in the new Duma,” the party said in a statement. Now that they have swept Sunday’s parliamentary election in an anti-climactic victory, perhaps their intentions will be revealed.