Russian Parliament Severely Restricts Referendums (updated)

State Duma Assembly.  Source: kommersant.ruOn April 4th, Russia’s State Duma enacted new legislation that redefines which issues can be resolved in national referendums. As the RBK business daily reports, critics believe the new law is so restrictive, that it practically outlaws referendums altogether.

After the new changes come into effect, a plebiscite cannot be used to resolve questions “directly concerned with the exclusive competence of the State Duma, the Federation Council and other bodies of state authority.” This effectively prevents the use of referendum to resolve issues such as the budget, treaties, or taxation.

A national referendum may currently be started by calling together an “initiative group,” which must have subgroups containing at least 100 people from at half of Russia’s regions. This group must then formulate the questions to be posed, and gather two million signatures. Four have been held since the new Russian Constitution was drafted in 1993.

The new legislation passed with a 363-8 vote, and will now head to the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house. Despite widespread objections, and a walk-out of all 57 members of the Communist Party (KPRF), it will almost certainly pass, and then be signed into law.

The rules on national referendums were first amended at the start of October 2007, after requests from the Constitutional Court. The law was subsequently changed to allow citizens to directly vote on the financial obligations of the government. Lawmakers used the chance, however, to forbid referendums on other questions.

The Secretariat of the Constitutional Court then filed another response to the State Duma, and called into question the new wording of the law. The court pointed out that referendums must not solely be “questions in conflict with the exclusive domain of the Federal Assembly or other federal authorities.”

Vadim Solovyev, a deputy from the KPRF, was troubled that the word “prerogative,” or exclusive right, was changed to “competence,” a much broader term. He explained that member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party had created a system where “prohibiting a referendum would always be possible.” The deputy added that a legal challenge on the constitutionality of the new law would take at least 3-4 years to even reach the Constitutional Court.

In 2005, the KPRF attempted to initiate a referendum, but was turned back when Russia’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC) determined that 15 of their 17 questions were unlawful. The questions, in part, dealt with federal spending on health-care, education, as well as minimal pensions. The KPRF then took the matter to the Constitutional Court, which determined on March 21st 2007 that questions on the financial responsibilities of the government could in fact be solved by a referendum.

Some critics of the current legislation believe the law is an outrage—the latest sign that Russia’s government has no respect for its citizens, and that it wants no input from the electorate. They cite other steps taken by the legislature, such as removing direct elections of deputies to the Parliament, raising percentage thresholds for political parties, abolishing a minimum voter turnout, and removing “against all” as a ballot option.

The Associated Press quotes Alexander Kulikov, a KPRF deputy:

“Passing this bill will mean that we’re asking people to shut up.”


On April 16, 2008, the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, passed the referendum bill.

On April 25th, 2008, President Vladimir Putin signed it into law.