When Vladimir Putin sketched out possible changes to Russia’s 1993 constitution and abruptly dismissed long term Prime Minister Medvedev on January 15, he was presumably hoping he would thereby give a needed boost to his presidency and also promote its longer-term viability. Putin was still seen then as the unchallenged leader of his country, but for all his command of the immediate future, there was also growing mistrust of the administration he headed. The belief that Putin was somehow exempt from its failings and corruption had been largely outgrown. Trust in Putin personally had diminished, according to polls by the respected Levada Center, from 59 percent in November 2017 to 35 percent this past January.
The protest wave provoked by governmental actions designed to fix elections in Moscow and a number of other urban centers in late July and early August 2019 was only the most recent evidence of division between “us” and “them” in Russia. “They” were only interested in themselves. The Kremlin had not addressed Russia’s economic or social interests despite fair words from Putin since he had been returned to the Kremlin once again in May 2018. His coterie had meanwhile reinforced the fear that underlay their rule by building up the repressive machinery already at its disposal. The foreign adventures that once had popular appeal were costing money that could have been used to raise standards of living, and were still unresolved. And besides, Putin had been there so long, had no new policies to offer, yet seemed immovable. Putin’s January 15 move was unexpected, but its main message was no surprise. The Russian public knew his purpose was to clear the way past the constitutional prohibition of his looking beyond the end of his current term in the Kremlin in 2024, either for another term or more as President or, if not that, a way to remain in control through some other artifice. Other ways to achieve the same objective, such as to complete the Russia-Belarus Union envisaged by agreements between the two countries signed in Yeltsin’s time—and thereby to create a new country for Putin to lead—had not proved fruitful. The succession question was becoming critical. Putin was the only candidate available if the system he headed was to remain, at least so far as its dominant figures and their interested parties were concerned.
This reality had to be disguised in public presentation. Putin was in practice confessing to his regime’s failure over two decades to erect a viable structure to govern the Russian state over the longer term. Authoritarian governments dominated by “strong men” drain the institutions that balance better ordered states with long-term prospects. “Strong men” don’t allow potential rivals to accrue independent authority beneath them. Nor do those in their circle tolerate rivals that might outpace them. Transition from one ruler to another is by struggle within the central cabal or by its eventual collapse. Russia is no exception. Putin’s claim has been that his purpose is to modernize Russia’s constitution. He has not said whether or not he will run again in 2024. He will need some assurance that his initiative has adequate public backing before he can do that with confidence.
The Nature of the Changes
The constitutional modifications suggested by Putin in January appeared to some, particularly outside Russia, to suggest that the intention was to build up the power of Russia’s Parliament, or Duma, as well as to discipline the country’s national and regional structures. President Putin promised actions to the benefit of Russia’s citizenry. There were, however, contradictions within the ideas put forward by the President as to the Duma’s future relationship with Russia’s executive authorities that further limited parliamentary powers. There were no signs that elections would in future become more genuinely democratic. The powers of the presidency were to be heightened, and the qualifications to be fulfilled for election to public office tightened. The option of Putin transitioning to some form of supreme authority in the event that a successor should be appointed for due and foreordained election to the Kremlin from within the circle of the presently ruling group seems not to have been abandoned.
The end to authorized discussion came with a rush on March 10. The constitutional amendment proposed by a member of the United Russia party at the last minute to abolish the relevant two-term restriction was not debated either before or after President Putin was asked to speak to the Duma about the proposal that afternoon. He explained to the House that democracy could only be built on the basis of established order, illustrating his point by recalling that there had been no such term limit for the major part of the history of the United States, for example. The Constitutional Court, he acknowledged, would of course have to be consulted on all the changes proposed by the Duma. The Duma readily endorsed the removal of the two-term restriction. The Constitutional Court rapidly endorsed it as well, along with the rest of the agenda presented by the Duma on March 11. That menu included other changes in fundamental contradiction with Russia’s 1993 Constitution. One, for instance, asserted the primacy of Russian Law over International Law—and thereby gave the Kremlin freedom to override Russia’s previously accepted international obligations at will.
However one might choose to present it, this was disgraceful. Both the Court and the Duma were craven. When Putin spoke of order being a necessary foundation for democracy, he meant order as he defines it, not a system of order wherein he is answerable to the people and to an independent judiciary. The talk of the present constitution as Russia’s Fundamental Law was belied by the casual ease with which it was defiled. There should have been a referendum before President Putin signed off on the changes. An ill-defined and unprecedented “popular vote,” complete with a readily manipulable counting process to validate its eventual verdict on the “reforms,” was promised for April 22. It was subsequently postponed on the grounds that the coronavirus infection made that the wrong time. If it ever takes place, it will be a vote on the constitutional changes as a package, not on the discrete proposals that form it. And as for the main question behind the January 15 initiative—how to fix the succession yet preserve the regime—the result is useless. Putin may or may not run again in 2024. If he gets away then with yet another six years in the Kremlin, the same question will be postponed until 2030. If he retains control by having a yes-man come in as President in 2024 the problem will still be: after Putin, what?
Speculation as to why addressing the 2024 issue was judged urgent at the beginning of the year was rife, along with the question of why it had to be settled in such a short time. There were some who claimed that Putin was critically ill and might not survive the year. Others argued that it was necessary to get changes through while the present Duma was in office because of the risk that the next parliamentary elections would mean the decimation of United Russia, the Kremlin’s pawn, and/or civic unrest. Particular issues were cited, like the need to get rid of the article in the Constitution giving primacy to international over Russian law, because of the Hague tribunal’s ongoing exploration of the 2014 Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shootdown. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that Lev Gudkov (the guiding spirit of Levada polling and a leading Russian sociologist) was on the mark when he told the independently minded newspaper Novaya Gazeta on March 20 that it was mounting fear of the regime losing popular support that pushed Putin and the Presidential Administration into action.
The overall result was damaging to the regime and to Putin personally. It was presumably believed at the outset by Putin insiders that constitutional adjustments intended to ensure continuity after 2024 would reassure Russians apprehensive about the unknown and unknowable consequences of the President’s departure from office that year. The intention was that proposals for constitutional change should be seen as general improvements, and that the question of whether or not Putin should return once again to power in some form in 2024 was not their defining purpose. Hence the call for suggestions from the public as to further improvements to be considered. Hence, too, Putin’s continuing ambivalence as to whether or not he will go for a third term in the present series. He needs the “popular vote” in his favor first. He may not get it. The public saw the issue posed in the constitutional debate as whether or not Putin’s rule should be prolonged for six or more years come 2024. The poll findings indicated in March that around half of the electorate would vote against the constitutional package, and hence a third term for Putin in 2024.
Putin and the regime as a whole have been further damaged by their failure to handle the coronavirus challenge effectively. (Lilia Shevtsova gives an authoritative account.) Putin himself has been largely silent, pushing the responsibility for dealing with it onto Russia’s regions. The Governors have been given neither guidance nor money. One result has been for some regions to demand that Russians from outside their territories, and Moscow or St. Petersburg in particular, undergo quarantine if they enter their jurisdictions. No use has been made of the substantial funds available to the central authorities, even to finance the “holidays” decreed by Putin to last until the end of April. The “vertical of power” has acted more like an agent of anarchy, not the directive instrument of efficient authoritarianism it is supposed to have been.
While it would be rash to predict what happens next in Russia, the essential problem facing the regime will not go away. Putin might be compelled, if he is to survive in office until 2024, to declare a state of emergency, with the coronavirus challenge as an excuse, and still greater reliance on the security forces as a means of supporting the vulnerable and in the end incoherent regime he has built. It is questionable how far he might revive or refresh the personal charisma that would be needed to sustain such a path or bequeath it safely to an effective successor in a similar mold. It is equally hard to see how Putin might take the alternative and (for him and his coterie) risky path of growing at least the initial strands of responsible, accountable, and reliable government.