President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon, dear friends and colleagues,
First of all, I want to wish everyone my sincere congratulations on our Constitution’s fifteenth anniversary. It is my firm conviction that this is not just a significant date but also an event of fundamental historic importance.
On December 12, 1993, our country adopted a fundamentally new Constitution for the first time in its history, a Constitution that recognised individuals and their rights and freedoms as the highest value, laid the foundations of a democratic order in Russia and bound the state to observe and protect these new basic values in practice.
The adoption of the Russian Constitution marked a turning point in modern Russia’s history. It was approved by the people’s will and thus signified a decisive and defining choice in favour of free and progressive development, a radical change in political and economic relations in favour of a social state and fair society, the high status of the law and independent courts, and the development of genuine federalism and full-fledged local self-government.
The Constitution was born out of public consensus, genuine public consensus on the direction the country’s long-term development should take. The situation was very complicated at the time and the Constitution’s adoption took place in the midst of far from simple political processes, but it nevertheless became the platform setting out our values for the decades to come, and it brought new stability to the state’s foundations, thus opening up the road to free development for each individual and for society as a whole. This is what makes it so different to constitutions of the preceding period.
The years that have passed by, for all their difficulties, have made clear the Constitution’s tremendous potential and have confirmed its balanced influence on the development of all forms of property in our country, effective use of budget funds, the development of economic relations in general, consolidation of social institutions, the civil service and the provision of public services, and indeed on practically every area of life that has a direct relation to people’s everyday needs and their development demands.
I want to recall once more that in accordance with the Constitution, it is human and civil rights and freedoms that define the sense and content of the state’s activities. It is these freedoms…
(Shouts from the audience.) …There’s no need to take them away. Let them stay and listen. Really, this is the whole purpose of the Constitution – to give each person the right to express their own views. This is also a view, and we should respect it too.
Here, at this educational and research conference, you have the opportunity to once again analyse the Constitution’s content. I would like chiefly to take a look at the opportunities the Constitution gives us for developing and improving the country’s laws. I will not tire you with lengthy reflections on this subject, but will simply set out three points.
First is improving the way public power is organised. One of the main tasks in this area is clear delimitation of the powers and responsibilities of the different levels of government. For example, there is a need to clarify in law the list of property needed for the federal and regional authorities to carry out their work in full. To be honest, this is an old issue that has been around for a long time now, but unfortunately we have yet to finally settle it. Relations between the budgets at the different levels are another area that requires further work. And procedures for the provision of state services also require further regulation.
Improving legislation on local self-government is an issue that needs urgent attention.
Organising public control over the authorities’ activities is another issue we need to look at. The establishment of the Public Council was an important step in this direction. But ensuring open and transparent government is still a relevant issue. Today, we also need to spread the use of modern technology, information and communications technology that will give people access to state and municipal services. What is also important is that these technologies also help to fight corruption.
My second point is the freedom of economic activity guaranteed by the Constitution. The Constitution recognises and protects all forms of ownership: private, state, municipal, and it clearly states an approach that could be defined in brief as “the economy serving the interests of each individual’s development”. Achieving these goals in full requires a full-fledged modern legal foundation. I note that the measures to help overcome administrative barriers and strengthen the position of small and medium businesses are important steps, but are nonetheless only the first steps towards fulfilling our constitutional obligations. The right to make free use of one’s assets and abilities for the purposes of enterprise should be an open door for our people, an open door not just to the world of business but also to the world of creation, discovering talents and developing innovative qualities.
I want to stress too that the supremacy of the law in economic activity is every bit as important as it is in other areas. Indeed, the financial crisis that has spread over these last months is in many respects the result of failing to observe this principle. Distorted perceptions of the rights and obligations of the different actors in financial relations and global economic ties have already caused huge problems in the economically developed countries. This is something we are duty bound to take into account when preparing the laws we will need for transforming Russia into one of the world’s financial centres.
The third area where the laws are in need of serious development is the social sector. The state has a duty to ensure that all citizens start out with equal opportunities and to protect their basic and inalienable social rights. In proclaiming the Russian Federation a social state the Constitution states directly that our country protects people’s labour and health and that the state provides support for the family, for motherhood, fatherhood, children, and looks after the rights of the disabled and the elderly. All of these provisions exist in our country’s laws, but there are nevertheless a huge number of problems still unresolved. You know that we are attempting to resolve these problems gradually, taking into account the budget’s possibilities and the current economic situation. We have been working on modernising the social sector and we will continue to do so. We will continue the national projects and continue our demographic policy measures. Ultimately, we need to achieve a new quality of social policy – policies for social development. All of these objectives call for careful decisions and the full-fledged development of our legislation.
Finally, I want to speak once more of the Constitution’s tremendous importance for overcoming legal nihilism. Everyone in our country should know and understand its rules and values, and there should be ongoing and systematic work to explain its provisions. This is also something the conference could discuss. We like to talk about how the Constitution is a law with direct effect – then let us put this principle into practice.
Colleagues, I have not mentioned all the issues related to continued implementation of the Constitution’s provisions. I spoke about some of these issues in my Address [to the Federal Assembly] and meetings with members of the legal community. We will most certainly continue these discussions.
The Constitution is the indisputable backbone of Russia’s legal system, and in this respect I recall that in 1994, in the very first Presidential Address [to the Federal Assembly] the first section of the Address was about implementing the Constitution’s provisions. The basic principles for lawmaking were named on that occasion: a systematic basis to legislation, an economy based on law, and unity of the legal system. All of these principles, like the Constitution’s fundamental values – the values of freedom, democracy and justice – are just as relevant and just as much a priority for us today. Here in this hall, with lawmakers, judges, jurists and practising lawyers present, I want to stress that the Constitution must be applied in practice.
When we talk about the Constitution we are thinking of the future. I said this during my Address, and I say again here that we must do everything we can to make the Constitution work. The Constitution is a fundamental document. But this does not mean that we cannot look at it with the eyes of modern people, people already living in the twenty-first century. This was the thinking behind the proposals I made in my Address, proposals that have received the support of the State Duma and the Federation Council. In my view, the main recent achievement is that any changes, whether changes to ordinary laws or amendments to the Constitution, must be adopted in accordance with the rules that we have set. The Constitution set these procedures, and we will continue to follow them, and I think that those who will come after us will also most likely do the same.
The Constitution needs to genuinely grow and develop and make its effect felt on how laws are adopted, how they are applied in practice, and all government decisions and civil society initiatives. Only in this way can its potential be fully realised, and only in this way can we achieve the strategic development goals it proclaims.
I would like once more to express my sincere thanks to those who took part in writing our Constitution. This was a truly living work and those of you who are here today remember how it unfolded and what different options were discussed. This work is worthy of the highest praise. Many of those who took part in this work are here today, and I want to thank you and inform you that I have signed a special resolution awarding you honorary presidential certificates as co-authors of the Russian Federation’s Constitution.
Dear friends, I wish you fruitful work and once more congratulate you on this common celebration.
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I cannot take part in the discussions, but so as to give you something to talk about I would like to say a few words and put a few questions to you all. They are simple questions, but the answers are not so straightforward.
My first question is: is our Constitution ideal? I think the answer is clearly that it is not. No document is ever ideal. The Constitution reflects the ideas of how the state and society should be organised and what development model we should follow that we had around 20 years ago. There is nothing wrong with this. The American Constitution reflects the ideas of the founding fathers more than 200 years ago.
My second question is: do we need to undertake thorough modernisation of our Constitution not now but in say, 15, 20 or even 30 years’ time? I think that again the answer is no, because the Constitution as it exists now reflects quite successfully the foundations of our country’s organisation, creates a system of people’s rights and freedoms, describes the construction of the federal state, the judicial system and other institutions vital for society’s development.
And this leads me to my third question: are amendments to the Constitution possible in the future? I think that we can answer this question in the affirmative because no one can ever know what the future has in store.
Let’s recall a few of the things said just before here in this hall. Our colleague, the President of the Constitutional Court of the Federal Republic of Germany, describing the situation with the division of powers, said the following: “the division of powers exists not just to ensure reciprocal control of the institutions of state power, but above all it facilitates the search for acceptable and effective solutions to problems”. This is what is important – resolving problems and not creating some kind of model.
The Constitution is not therefore a law handed down from above, but is the result of public consensus, and we know that consensus can change. What should not change is the fundamental base the Constitution sets out. This should not change because it would be dangerous for the state’s very existence, not because it does not fit with this or that theoretical model, but above all because otherwise the state and society could end up caught up in internal contradictions.
We know that different people view our state in different ways, some with sympathy and some with feelings less fond than we would like. But whatever the case, the Constitution’s provisions on the fundamental rights and freedoms, the presidential form of government that we have, the federal system – these are the things that should never change, at least not in the historical perspective. The contrary would jeopardise the Russian Federation’s very existence.
If such a thing were to happen the consequences could be very serious indeed. As all the speakers said, and I said too in my opening remarks, the Constitution is a living document. In order to ensure that the laws taken to enforce the Constitution, the court decisions or our proposals on improving law and order in general conform to the letter and spirit of the Constitution, we have the Constitutional Court.
I am sure that this institution, which appeared at the same time as the Russian Federation’s Constitution, will continue to keep watch over the Constitution, not allow any inaccurate interpretation of its provisions, and defend the fundamental pillars on which it rests.
I cannot claim with certainty that everything I have said is indisputable, but we are at a conference here and I hope that during the next plenary session you will be able to discuss all of these views and many other ideas present today in our society and that should most certainly be the subject of discussion.
Once again, I congratulate you all in the fifteenth anniversary of our Constitution, thank those who took part in its creation, and wish the conference successful work.