The Constitution of the Russian Federation and the Venice Commission

Statement by Martin Vukovich at an international conference in Moscow on 17 December 2013

Two years after the dissolution of the USSR and the proclamation of a new democratic Russia this new State has received its own Constitution. At a referendum held on 12 December 1993, a clear majority of the participating citizens voted in favor of the adoption of the new Constitution. The new basic law reflects the will of the Russian people; it represents the foundation of the Russian State and its legal system.

The Constitution of the Russian Federation was drafted by a Constitutional Commission presided by President Yeltsin and, at a final stage, by a Constituent Assembly. The “Founding Fathers” of the Constitution are numerous: Oleg Rumyantsev, Sergei Shakhrai and Anatoly Sobchak to name but a few.

The work of the Constitutional Commission was public and open. A broad spectrum of experts from international organizations and foreign countries were invited to take part in the Commission’s work. The most substantial expert advice was provided by the Commission for Democracy through Law, or Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe consisting of independent experts.

The Venice Commission was established in 1990 to provide constitutional assistance to the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. The members of the Venice Commission are “senior academics, particularly in the fields of constitutional and international law, supreme or constitutional court judges or members of parliaments”. It is the primary task of the Venice Commission to assist and advise individual countries in constitutional matters, in the drafting of constitutions and constitutional amendments as well as of para-constitutional laws.

In March 1992 the Venice Commission received from Mr. Rumyantsev, Executive Secretary of the Constitutional Commission, an urgent request for opinion on a preliminary draft constitution. The Task Force on Constitutional Reforms of the Venice Commission replied within a short time limit. Further drafts were submitted to the Commission in September and November 1992. They gave rise to exchanges of views between the Venice Commission and a multiparty delegation of members of the Constitutional Commission. Throughout 1993, several drafts of the Constitution in various stages of preparation were sent to the Venice Commission for comment. The advice of the Venice Commission was forwarded to the Russian authorities. President Yeltsin, in his capacity as chairman of the Constitutional Assembly expressed thanks and appreciation for the advice which was to a large extent taken into account in the final text of the Constitution adopted in December 1993.

After the adoption of the new Russian Constitution, the Venice Commission – upon the request of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe – embarked on an in-depth legal study of the Constitution. The study was made within the framework of cooperation between Russia and the Council of Europe. Russia became a member of this organization in 1996.

In its opinion, the Venice Commission stated that the new Russian Constitution does not give rise to any serious questions as to its conformity with the principles of a democratic State governed by the rule of law and respectful of human rights. Nevertheless, a number of important observations were made:

Professor Vitruk, a Russian associate member of the Venice Commission, replied to the study as follows: “It is quite obvious that the Constitution was drawn up under extremely complex political conditions, at a time when the struggle between different social interests took the form of opposition between the legislature and the executive. The situation was further aggravated by various rivalries between the Federation and its components as well as among the components. As a result, the compromise nature of the Constitution which was unavoidable in such a situation, led in certain cases to rules being formulated in a way which could be considered defective from a purely legal point of view.”

During the last couple of years, the Venice Commission was repeatedly asked to give its opinion on Federal Laws with implications for the Russian Constitution (so-called “para-constitutional laws”). The request for opinions on several para-constitutional laws came from the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Monitoring Committee reports to the PACE on honouring of obligations and commitments by member states of the Council of Europe. Thus, the Venice Commission expressed its opinion on

In its findings the Venice Commission declared that some provisions of these laws are not in line with European standards.

Let me conclude by saying that the Venice Commission has made for more than twenty years essential contributions to the strengthening of democracy and the rule of law in Russia guided by ambitious standards developed in the Council of Europe.