On November 5, a draft bill was submitted to the Russian State Duma (the lower house of parliament) seeking to significantly strengthen the president’s immunity from prosecution. Currently, Russian ex-presidents cannot be detained, arrested interrogated or otherwise charged for any crimes that allegedly occurred during their tenure.
The proposed changes to the law are intended to expand that immunity to cover a president’s entire lifetime.
Only acts of high treason or other series felonies could result in a revocation of that immunity.
Russia’s TASS news service outlined the procedures for any such revocation.
“Under the newly proposed bill, in order to deprive an ex-president of immunity, the State Duma would have to put forward accusations of high treason or gravely serious felonies. However, they would have to be confirmed by the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. Based on these accusations, the Federation Council [the upper chamber of Russian parliament] would have to make a decision on revoking an ex-president’s immunity,” TASS reports.
“The State Duma’s decision on handing down charges and the Federation Council’s decision on rescinding immunity would have to be approved by two-thirds of the votes of all Russian senators and lawmakers at the initiative of at least one-third of the MPs of the lower house and if there is a conclusion of a special commission set up by the State Duma. After the lower house puts forward the accusations, the upper house would have three months to make a decision on stripping a former president of immunity. If this is not done, the accusations would be dismissed.”
As reported by the Moscow Times, the bill followed another piece of legislation submitted by Putin that will give former presidents a lifetime seat in the country’s senate or Federation Council.
Both bills are part of recently passed constitutional reforms which will pave the way for Putin to remain president until 2036, after his current term ends in 2024.
On November 5, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the plan was “justified” by international norms.
"Within the framework of this package, there is also [a draft law on guarantees to ex-presidents], which is a practice that is in place in many countries throughout the world, and it is rather justified," Peskov said.
He said this was not a new international practice, adding it “fine tune[s]” the current status of presidential immunity.
The legislation has sparked media reports that President Vladimir Putin, who was first inaugurated in 2000, is paving the way to step down as president in January due to rumored health complications. Peskov has dismissed those rumors as “utter nonsense.”
In any case, Peskov’s claim that the proposed immunity changes are the norm worldwide is false.
In the United States, for example, the Constitution does not explicitly say whether a setting president can be charged with a crime while in office, although decades-long Justice Department policy argues such a move would be “unconstitutional.”
Instead, the U.S. Constitution provides a way to address misconduct with a political process: impeachment. Article II, Section 4 states that the “President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on December 18, 2019.
He was acquitted on February 5, 2020, by a party line vote of the Republican-led Senate. There are no protections once a U.S. president leaves office.
What about other countries?
In the British Commonwealth, states including the U.K., Australia and Canada, have protections for leaders who allegedly commit while they are in office, although parliament can strip those protections if deemed necessary. As in the U.S., that immunity does not extend to a leader’s lifetime, and those rules concern prime ministers, not presidents.
Throughout Europe, protections exist for sitting presidents and prime ministers, although lifetime protections are anything but the norm.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, was charged on October 26 for “membership in a criminal conspiracy” for allegedly accepting money from Libya to fund his 2007 presidential run.
As noted by the Washington Post, several European states “treat their prime ministers, presidents or chancellors like normal members of parliament,” making it far easier to strip their immunity than the multistep U.S. impeachment process.
What about outside of the West?
According to a 2017 Library of Congress study, 32 countries provide for constitutional or statutory provisions concerning immunity for current and former presidents.
However, only three states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan — grant presidents “absolute immunity for any acts committed during office, including after leaving office.”
In Equatorial Guinea, former presidents are deemed “for life” senators, “with all the rights, prerogatives and immunities, provided that they keep their dignity and social and political reputation.”
In Rawanda, a former president is immune unless a case was initiated against them while still in office.
Belarus considered granting immunity to former president in 2019, but did not follow through.
Few states, however, appear to provide the sweeping protections being proposed for the Russian president.
William Pomeranz, the Deputy Director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, told Polygraph.info the only reason these changes are being implemenimplemented Putin is looking to secure his post-presidential life.
“Obviously, it depends on how he leaves office, and if his 2020 constitution remains in place after his departure. But the amendments and subsequent legislation suggests that he wants all the legal protection that he can get,” he said.
Within Russia, reaction to the proposal has been mixed.
The Riga-based online newspaper Meduza published an “incomplete list of crimes for which former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev “and someday Putin” will not be able to be tried.
Russian political scientist Kiril Rogov argues the bill is intended to help Putin avoid the fate of former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, who was stripped of his ex-presidential immunity and charged with a litany of offenses in 2019.
“Putin's bill is obviously aimed at preventing such a situation: reprisals against a ‘former’ [president] with the help of fictitious criminal cases,” Rogov wrote.