An Unconstitutional Law

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Meeting with Valentina Matviyenko last week, President Vladimir Putin said that he sincerely wished her luck in the upcoming St. Petersburg gubernatorial election. During their meeting, parts of which were broadcast on national television, Putin also discussed with her economic issues relating to the northern capital that she will have to deal with once elected. In doing so, Putin made it quite clear that he does not see anyone except Matviyenko in the role of St. Petersburg governor.

The immediate cause of the presidential d?marche is fairly obvious: Matviyenko, who is best known in St. Petersburg as a Komsomol activist (and has acquired the sobriquet "Valka-Stakan" or "Valka the Glass"), depends on some of Putin's popularity rubbing off on her to secure victory at the polls. If she fails to win the election in the first round, then she could be defeated in the second round by the vote "against all candidates." To avert potential embarrassment, Matviyenko needs public endorsement -- which she got.

However, according to the federal law on voters' rights, officials are not allowed to use their official position to help a given candidate. And even if one interprets the president's words as his personal opinion, expressed in his capacity as a private citizen, (which of course is a bit of a stretch) -- for the media to be able to report it, the coverage would have to be paid for out of the candidate's campaign funds. It's absurd, but it's the law.

Finding himself in an awkward situation, Central Elections Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov is not blaming the president for violating the law, but the media: If Matviyenko did not pay for dissemination of the president's words out of her campaign funds, then journalists had no right to report them.

The "minister of elections" has adopted this position before. In the autumn of 1999, when then-Prime Minister Putin said that "as a citizen" he would vote for the Unity party, Veshnyakov described this not as abuse of the power of office (or "administrative resources"), but as journalists' abuse of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Verbal interventions by officials during an election campaign are not explicitly forbidden by the law. Strictly speaking, the law forbids officials from using (or abusing) the powers of office -- and that can be interpreted either narrowly or broadly (or narrowly in some cases, and broadly in others).

The broader interpretation of the powers of office (when any statement by an official regarding an election is considered use of administrative resources) can be justified up to a point: If a boss expresses his political preferences, then many subordinates may well be willing to violate the law in order for their boss's wishes to come true. There is always this possibility, but by the same logic, you could argue that all men in the Russian Federation should be castrated, as otherwise they might commit rape.

In fact, the Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to freely express their views -- including, presumably, the president. And most democratic countries do not forbid their presidents or prime ministers from campaigning on behalf of their party colleagues, allies, etc.

However, the current law on the basic guarantees of voters' rights forbids any campaigning that is not paid for out of the campaign funds of a party or candidate. No matter who is doing the campaigning -- whether it be a homeless person, a journalist, governor or the president.

Moreover, the law defines the following activities as campaigning: "describing the possible consequences of the election or non-election" of a candidate or party; "dissemination of information about the activities of a candidate not connected to their professional activities," and also "other actions" that could influence the choice of the electorate.

Putin's televised meeting with Matviyenko, at minimum, falls into the category of "other actions" that could influence the St. Petersburg electorate.

In Russia, all laws are applied selectively, and some are specially written in such a way as to provide plenty of room for the imagination and for bureaucratic interpretation (often enabling diametrically opposite interpretations, depending on the circumstances).

Citizens, however, can try to turn the ambiguity of Russian legislation to their advantage.

From now on, no doubt, not only will governors and mayors cite the example of the president, in order to justify campaigning for their favored candidates; journalists and ordinary citizens can also assert their constitutional right to free expression of their views -- illegally restricted by Veshnyakov's unconstitutional law -- by referring to the example set by the president.

Alas, there is no reason to expect in the near future that the law on voters' rights will be brought into line with common sense -- giving all citizens, including officials and journalists, the right to express their political and personal preferences during an election period without let or hindrance.

This is despite the fact that the president has the clear prerogative to put forward the necessary legislative amendments and has the influence in parliament to ensure that his amendments become law in short order.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of the Panorama think tank, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.