When Vladimir Putin became President in 2018 for the fourth time, Russians steeled themselves for a long six years of Brezhnev-style sclerosis, knowing that no real political revival could take place until this last term was up. Under the Russian constitution, Putin could not legally assume the presidency in 2024—at least not without rewriting existing laws. Thus, when on January 15 Putin ordered his cabinet to resign and announced that the Russian constitution had become outdated and needed to be amended, analysts jumped to the conclusion that Putin had decided on the “Kazakhstan model” for staying in power.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev stepped down last year and assumed the leadership of the Security Council for life; Putin’s proposed amendments seemed to gesture in the same direction. Putin proposed upgrading the role of the Russian Federation State Council (Gossovet)—currently a largely ceremonial body composed of state governors and chaired by the President—for the first time directly writing its powers into the constitution, and giving it wide advisory and oversight functions in both foreign and domestic matters. At the same time, he talked about weakening the role of the presidency, both by affirming existing term limits and restoring a role for the Duma (Russia’s Parliament) in approving the President’s picks for Prime Minister and his cabinet, thus bringing “more balance between power branches.”
What followed was bizarre. After almost two months of poorly orchestrated theater—from coming up with an impromptu people’s council of celebrities and public figures who were assigned to work on new constitutional provisions, to setting up a national people’s vote on the amendments—Putin went back to the drawing board. Appearing before the Duma in March, Putin announced that for the sake of stability and “at our current stage of development,” it would be necessary to retroactively nullify his previous terms served, thus allowing him to run again. Given how elections work in Russia, Putin was declaring himself President for Life, and in doing so transforming Russia into an authoritarian monarchy.
It took the Russian Duma one day to pass the amendments and a couple of days more for Russian regional parliaments to approve them before Putin signed it all into law. The only thing that had remained from the original January plans was the provision that the amendments would be voted on by the Russian people in a referendum on April 22. And even that idea was scrapped as the COVID-19 emergency overtook Russia.
So why did things play out this way? As Valentina Matvienko, the Speaker of the upper chamber of the Duma, noted, if Putin had always wanted to remain President, he could have done so in a much simpler way. Why first offer to step aside—even if only symbolically—before reversing himself? And even more puzzlingly, why did Putin initiate the big changes now, four years ahead of his fourth presidential term’s end? We may never know for sure, but one explanation seems plausible: as he has throughout his time in power, Putin was making a play for improving relations with the West.
On May 9, Russia would have hosted its annual World War II Victory Day parade. (These, too, were recently called off due to the virus.) The celebrations were supposed to have been even more grandiose than usual, as this year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. The Kremlin had invited, among others, U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and French President Emmanuel Macron. The last time Putin had tried to host such a high-profile event was in 2014 at the Sochi Olympics. In anticipation of the spectacle and eager to improve relations with the West, he had pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot in a grand gesture of goodwill. Of course, history intervened and no one came to Putin’s party: Ukraine’s Maidan revolution upset his plans.
It’s plausible to assume that Putin was going to give it another try with Western leaders. After all, rhetoric on Russia had already started to shift across the West, with not just Donald Trump but also Emmanuel Macron talking about rapprochement. Putin perhaps sensed an opportunity. A grand gesture of promising to step down from the presidency, calling early elections, and continuing to control things from the Gossovet could have served as a pretext for a discussion of the lowering of Ukraine-related sanctions.
Paradoxically, even as the pandemic wrecked Putin’s plans, it has heightened the importance of sanctions relief. The collapse in the global demand for oil pinched budgets. And the deal Russia signed with OPEC, wherein it agreed to further cut its oil production, was described by Lukoil CEO Leonid Fedun as a betrayal equivalent to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
Domestically, what should have been a COVID quarantine was sold as a month-long “holiday,” with employers obliged to pay full salaries to employees during that time. Facing a downturn, many started firing people anyway. Unemployment benefits were matched to the minimum wage, and mortgage payments were deferred for those whose income fell by more than 30 percent. To pay for this, Putin announced new taxes on dividends and interest that Russian companies paid abroad, as well as on interest earned at home on any bank deposits over $12,500.
It’s in this context that one might understand Putin’s hasty decision to send “aid” to Italy and the United States. Even as Russia shows itself increasingly unprepared for the virus, these gestures can best be seen as attempts to soften Russia’s image abroad. And even though the Kremlin denied that sanctions had anything to do with their outreach, sanctions are clearly on the agenda. Several days ago in discussing COVID-19, Putin called on the West to lift sanctions on food and medications, despite the fact that Western sanctions on food and medicine have never been considered. Indeed, it was Putin’s decision to ban imports of Western food as a reaction to his cronies being sanctioned by the West.
It’s hard to tell how the pandemic will play out in Russia, but there is plenty of reasons for Putin to worry that things won’t go smoothly.
Capacity-wise, Russia is not in good shape. Ten years ago, Putin called for the “optimization of healthcare in Russia,” which led to the closing of half of Russia’s hospitals in the period of 2010-2015 (down to 5,400 in a country of 146 million people), with 35 percent of the country’s medical workers laid off through 2019. To make things worse, the “holiday” language used by the Kremlin encouraged citizens from Moscow to go on literal holidays across the country, spreading the virus to the much poorer regions.
Politically, it has already been difficult. Putin has thus far spoken to the nation about the crisis four times, and like President Donald Trump, he has tended to try to both downplay the crisis and shift responsibility. His second address particularly frustrated and angered even his loyalists, who were expecting tougher measures. Instead, Putin talked about granting new powers to regional governors and demanded that they step up and handle the crisis on their own, without help from the federal center. The institutional weakness of the centralized Russia that Putin has built was immediately felt. Three governors—people appointed by Putin directly, not elected officials—resigned in protest. And both the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov as well as the governor of Karelia Artur Parfenchikov simply ignored an order from the new Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to keep internal Russian borders open.
The Kremlin’s unspoken motto for the past ten years has been “If not Putin, then who?” implying that he is the only person capable of keeping the nation safe in the face of all sorts of (imaginary) threats. Any institutions meant to check and balance the President are said to only frustrate Putin’s good-faith efforts at improving Russia’s lot. On the other hand, Russia’s liberal opposition has stuck to its motto “Russia without Putin.” COVID-19, at least for now, is giving the country a taste of what that looks like.
Historically, this has been a classic Putin play: lay low when trouble first emerges, and then reappear at a later date and take credit for taking charge. This time, it may not be going according to plan. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has briefed the press that Putin himself is in isolation, even though most of the country has not been ordered to quarantine. Thus far, it’s not playing well with the public.
In March, after all the Constitutional amendments had been passed, The Washington Post published an editorial that ended this way:
Mr. Putin said the revamped constitution was designed for “a longer historical term, at least 30-50 years.” Here’s betting that neither it, nor Mr. Putin’s rule, lasts as long as he expects.
While counting on Putin’s imminent demise has not historically been a great bet, it’s at least better odds today. Russians are comparing this latest episode to the inefficacy of Boris Yeltsin’s final year in power. Yeltsin never recovered from that. Vladimir Putin might not, either.