The Russians are coming!


To say that the president does not possess the whole power of the nation would be a banality. Yet, in Russia we have found it difficult to draw a line between the nation and the president.

Dmitry Medvedev has sent a bill to the parliament to broaden the list of circumstances when Russian troops can be used outside the national borders. The law, as it stands today, limits the grounds for the extraterritorial actions of the Russian army to three tasks: defence against external aggression, protection of the territorial unity, and the execution of the Russia’s international obligations.

If the bill becomes law the army would be used to protect military units and Russian citizens abroad, defending another country, and securing the safety of maritime navigation. In short, troops could be sent anywhere and anytime.

The point of the bill, however, is not where or when but who and how.

According to the article 102 of the Russian Constitution a decision about the use of the armed forces outside the Russian territory is taken by the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, the Council of the Federation.

This, it appeared, can be a matter of a debate. On 11 August 2008, two days after Russian troops entered Georgia, the head of the Council of the Federation Sergey Mironov stated that the Council’s approval was not needed as this was ‘the enlargement of the peacekeeping corps’. On August 25, however, the council approved the operation.

The war in Chechnya in 1994 was sanctioned by the president’s decree. The legality of the operation was immediately questioned on the grounds that the use of force was possible only if the state of emergency or the state of war was officially declared and sanctioned by parliament, and neither was done. In effect there was a de facto war in de jure peaceful towns.

In 1995 the Constitutional Court of Russia considered the legality of the decree which started the military action. The discussion from the murky waters of the authority of the president to start the war and the legal status of soldiers moved to the safe harbour of the possibility, in principle, of use of military forces to fight armed gangs and protect the territorial unity of the country.

Still, the judges did not proclaim. At the time of the hearing the decree was no longer effective, and this was a convenient excuse for the court not to speak.

The point nevertheless was made and heard. Since then the discussions of the military operations have revolved, at least in Russia, around the question whether Russia, as a nation, could do what it did.

But this is the way to nowhere. The military forces are to protect the national interests, and, realistically speaking, will do what the nation pleases. The question, I would ask, what were the interests of the nation and whether the president had a formal authority to speak in its name.



August 16, 2009.


Medvedev's proposal to change the defence legislation means that the president is ready to admit - at last - that he does not possess all power of the state. And that the last year's military operation in S. Ossetia might have been legally flawed.