[home page][map of the server][news of the server][forums][publications][Yabloko's Views]

The Moscow Times, May 25, 2004

Putin Seeks Control of Referendums

By Francesca Mereu

Calling a referendum is likely to become much more difficult for lobbying groups in the future, as a proposal from President Vladimir Putin looks set to add new bureaucratic hurdles to an already complicated process.

The move, which requires the Constitution to be amended, is being touted by its supporters as a more democratic way of gauging public support for a referendum, but has been criticized as a way for the Kremlin to snuff out referendum proposals it does not like.

Currently, the Constitution stipulates that only 100 people are needed to initiate a referendum.

The amendments, submitted to the State Duma on Thursday, would considerably beef up current registration procedures, requiring an "initiative group" calling for a referendum to have subgroups in at least half of the country's 89 regions.

Each subgroup must have at least 100 members, who should all be registered with regional elections commissions -- meaning at least 4,500 people nationwide.

Further complicating the process is the way groups will be required to collect the 2 million signatures needed to file for a referendum with the Central Elections Commission.

In the future, only notarized members of initiative groups will be allowed to collect signatures, and they will be held legally responsible for their validity.

They will also have just 45 days to collect them -- half the current period of three months.

Under the new rules, the number of signatures allowed from a single region will be cut from 200,000 to 50,000. This will likely reduce the chances for referendums with a liberal political agenda, as they would be unable to count on more than a total of 100,000 signatures from Moscow and St. Petersburg, where support for liberal ideas is traditionally highest.

Initiative groups will also be restricted to submitting a maximum of 2.1 million signatures, meaning that if only 5 percent of signatures are declared invalid, the application will fail.

Now there are no limits to the number of signatures that can be collected.

Central Election Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov, who Putin nominated his representative for examining the amendments, told reporters Monday that the changes were necessary "to allow only serious initiatives" to get through, and dismissed the idea that the amendments would make it impossible for lobby groups to call referendums.

"If there is a [serious] idea that unites people, what's the problem in registering an initiative groups of 100 people in 45 regions?" Veshnyakov said.

Veshnyakov said the changes would make the referendum process more democratic, since a majority of regions would be involved.

"A referendum has to reflect the different point of views of various groups of citizens. ... [Initiatives on referendums] are usually taken without taking public opinion into account," he said.

Kremlin opponents opposed the changes as yet another way to strengthen the authorities' control over democratic processes, and said it would be practically impossible for referendums critical of the authorities to be put to the vote.

"Those in power have monopolized all the [democratic] institutions," said Communist Party deputy leader Ivan Melnikov on Friday. "They have decided to take control of referendums as well; this is another side of authoritarianism. ... Referendums are not forbidden, but it will become impossible to initiate them."

The Communists said they would vote against the amendments in the Duma. But since the Kremlin, through its United Russia faction, controls 306 seats in the Duma -- over the 300 votes required for a two-thirds Constitutional majority -- the Communists and other minority parties will be unlikely to affect the outcome.

"This is a move intended to liquidate democracy in Russia and the right to people to express their point of view," said Oleg Shein, a deputy with the nationalist Rodina bloc.

Shein said that Rodina will decide Tuesday what its stance on the issue will be, but said he would vote against the amendments, even if his faction decides to back the Kremlin.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said he backs the amendments.

"We usually think that referendums are the very embodiment of democracy -- when citizens can express themselves about any problems -- but it is very dangerous in our country to give the possibility to any group to carry out a referendum," Zhirinovsky said in a statement.

Zhirinovsky said Russia "was not Switzerland, where referendums are held about whether to build swimming pools."

"In our country referendums are usually about political issues. The new law should provide that referendums do not endanger our society and the state. This is why it is better to back the president's version," Zhirinovsky said.

Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the changes were another step toward creating "a predictable political system, where the risks to the present political elite are minimized."

By making it impossible for lobby groups to call referendums, the Kremlin would cut the chances of independent political initiatives, Ryabov said.

Restrictions on when referendums can be held were introduced last September, when Putin approved a Constitutional amendment banning referendums for one year before national elections.

The Communists had then planned to call for a referendum against unrestricted sales of farmland, as well as against price hikes for housing and communal services and for the nationalization of strategic branches of the economy.

The Communists and some liberal deputies voted against the change, but the Duma eventually passed it, taking four votes to reach the required two-thirds majority.

Veshnyakov said the Duma would give the amendments a first reading at the beginning of next month, and added that the Kremlin plans to see the changes coming into force in July.

The Communists complained they had too little time to study the 280-page draft. Usually deputies are given a month to study draft laws.

Ryabov said that the Kremlin was rushing its amendments through ahead of the fall, when it plans to introduce a controversial package of social reforms likely to engender protests among the population.

"The Kremlin is afraid that parties or political groups might use these protests to drum up support for referendums. The Kremlin does not like to leave an opportunity like that open," Ryabov said.

The country has seen only one nationwide referendum, in 1993, when Russians were asked to vote for the new Constitution.

In 2000 a coalition of environmental campaigners called for a referendum on whether to allow the importing of nuclear waste, but the Central Elections Commission rejected the application, declaring that more than 600,000 of about 2.5 million signatures were invalid.


See also:

the original at

Human Rights

The Moscow Times, May 25, 2004

[home page][map of the server][news of the server][forums][publications][Yabloko's Views]

Project Director: Vyacheslav Erohin e-mail: admin@yabloko.ru Director: Olga Radayeva, e-mail: english@yabloko.ru
Administrator: Vlad Smirnov, e-mail: vladislav.smirnov@yabloko.ru