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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ambivalence as Constitution Turns 7

When it comes to the Constitution, Alik knows his rights have been violated.

"Freedom of movement — isn’t there a paragraph [in the Constitution] promising us all that?" the 48-year-old Dagestani mused Tuesday. "I certainly fit the description of a ‘person with origins in the Caucasus.’ So you can imagine how often I get harassed by the police."

But Alik said he never considered standing up for his rights in court. Instead, he found a simpler solution.

"For the past couple of years I have been working as an aide to a State Duma deputy. Showing my Duma pass usually solves all my problems," he said.

As the nation took Tuesday off for Constitution Day, ordinary citizens said they knew little about what the country’s highest law actually contains, and were skeptical about its ability to protect them. Meanwhile, political leaders praised the Constitution and called for stricter adherence to the seven-year-old document.

"Living according to the Constitution and the law is not only a necessity and a matter of civic responsibility," Interfax quoted President Vladimir Putin as saying. "It is the privilege of a free people."

Viktor Sheinis, one of the authors of the Constitution and a member of the Yabloko party’s central council, said adopting the Constitution in the early 1990s was a major achievement for Russia. "You can argue about whether it is a good constitution or a bad one … but passing the Constitution saved us from civil war," he said in a telephone interview.

Calls to revise the Constitution have been mounting in recent months.

"I will risk making the assumption that the Constitution may be changed in 2001," State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov told Ekho Moskvy radio on Saturday. Ryzhkov said legislation pushed through parliament this year by Putin had already "eroded" the Constitution.

After his inauguration in May, Putin set to work revising the structure of government, notably in the relationship between the federal government and the regions. Putin has hinted that amendments to the Constitution could be in the works.

Just in case, the Duma is preparing for that. Bills establishing the makeup of the constitutional assembly, the only body with the authority to revamp the Constitution completely, are awaiting the approval of the State Duma. Itar-Tass on Saturday quoted Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov as saying the Duma may consider one of those bills in January or February.

But whatever else it may be, the Constitution is widely seen as having been written to secure the power of then-President Boris Yeltsin — and many are equally skeptical about the motives behind new calls to change the document.

"I would probably believe in the power of the Constitution if only somebody could guarantee that the Constitution itself will not be changed at any given moment to match the needs of those in power," said Nikolai Chiplakov, a 66-year-old labor safety specialist.

Sheinis said there was room for improvement in the Constitution, but urged against a complete overhaul.

"I think it would be better not to even pass the law on the constitutional assembly that they are trying to pass now, so as to avoid the temptation to rewrite the Constitution," Sheinis said.

Amendments to most chapters of the Constitution can be made without calling a constitutional assembly. They require parliament’s approval, followed by the approval of two-thirds of the nation’s 89 regional legislatures.

Chapters 1, 2 and 9 — which outline the major principles of governance, the rights of citizens and the procedure for amending or rewriting the Constitution — can only be changed by a constitutional assembly.

Sheinis singled out a handful of issues on which he said constitutional amendments are in order.

For one thing, he said the reform of the Federation Council that was begun this year could be taken a step further. The law passed this summer replaces regional leaders, who currently double as federal lawmakers, with appointed representatives to occupy their seats in the upper house.

Sheinis said he would support a constitutional amendment that would require the direct election of such senators.

Another area for revision is the division of powers, Sheinis said, adding that parliament’s functions should be strengthened.

"Our Constitution is sometimes called over-presidential. This is not the case. It is not so much over-presidential as under-parliamentary," he said.

Seleznyov said the Duma had passed one amendment in the first reading that would give the legislature more levers.

"We are still insisting that we get [the right to form] special commissions to investigate corruption cases," he was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying. "The amendment is now ready for the second reading and we would hope that the pro-government factions support it."

Despite the discussion in political circles on the holiday, ordinary Muscovites remained skeptical about the role the Constitution could play in their lives.

"As far as I remember, the old Soviet Constitution also guaranteed rights, but somehow this never really mattered," said Marina Buravtseva, 43. "And I don’t think much will change any time soon, or even in our lifetime."