President Putin’s rule has seen the progressive evisceration of the constitution he inherited. The constitutional “adjustments” he recommended on January 15, which are currently being put to a “popular vote,” will not build a durable, long-term, and effective system of government in place of the authoritarian and personalized system built up under his watch.
Three Aims of the Constitutional Changes
The first issue the new constitutional framework sketched out by Putin was defined by what we and most Russians speak of as the succession issue: Who should take Putin’s place when his current term ends in 2024? The wider and more important question—of what should be the outcome for Russia as a whole—was not on the table. The frozen logic of the existing regime system swiftly decreed the answer to the succession question—abolish the constitutional block on more than two consecutive presidential terms so Putin could run again. Other options had before been considered as possible ways to keep him in charge but found wanting. There was no other person of comparable political weight among those around him who might at that stage take his place either sooner or later. The decision to allow Putin to remain in office until 2036 nonetheless showed that Russia by 2020 had no operable way to ensure the essential requirement of any durable state, the orderly introduction of a new government on the expiry of one whose time is up. It still does not.
The second question that had somehow to be addressed was dealing with Russia’s increasing domestic tensions. Putin’s re-election in 2018 had led to further repression and the consequent rise in the power of the security forces above what had already become the case, and in the attention and money lavished on the armed forces too. Russia’s economy had not prospered. The 2018 change in Russia’s pension system that Putin put through had led to protests, and unwelcome failures that year for the Presidential Administration in getting their proxies to office in regional elections. The widespread demonstrations in late July/early August 2019 provoked by electoral machinations in Moscow, among other places, were a warning as to similar problems perhaps to come on September 13 this year in regional elections, and in parliamentary elections in 2021. The answer, again, was to tighten central control by increasing presidential power, including the Kremlin’s ability to discipline Russia’s federal units. The Constitutional Court duly and unhesitatingly accepted changes that were incompatible with the existing Fundamental Document, notably the first two articles of the constitution it was obliged to protect.
It may seem paradoxical that the third worry, Putin’s slipping popularity, was perhaps also a factor in the decision to act in January, and to rush towards a still more Kremlin-centered order of things, to be approved by a securely programmed “popular vote” on April 22 before the planned triumphal victory celebrations in Moscow of Russia’s recovered glory on May 9. A change of Prime Minister on January 15, various baubles hung on the constitutional amendments tree on its passing in March, and the option of Putin staying on come 2024 might then have been seen by enough voters to presage some refocusing on the domestic concerns of the Russian public and as more attractive than the uncertainty otherwise on offer. It is a fair guess that the constitutional changes would have then in any case been passed by fair-ish means or foul, despite polls recording around half of potential voters opposing Putin staying on beyond 2024.
The Coronavirus Crisis and Russia’s Confused Response
The mounting COVID-19 crisis in Russia, which eventually forced Putin to postpone the popular vote, was a major setback both to him and to the regime he is supposed to direct. The Leader of the Nation has pretty much sat that crisis out, in self-isolation and scarcely appearing in public. The “vertical of power” set up over the past two decades has, despite its designation, no one in secure control of government in Russia, particularly in the absence of its head. “Understandings” (Poniatiya—the informal rules and deals), not law, make accountability impossible. Instead, they make for a system based on fear and favors given, expected, or owed by and among those with power at all levels. There is an obvious irony in proposing to entrench the present “vertical” by adjusting a constitution already emasculated by Russia’s rulers. Swift changes in the then-existing “Fundamental Law” for political convenience could not readily be understood as committing those rulers, their executive machinery, or law-enforcing agencies to their future respect for its Articles, let alone to expect the Russian public to believe in any such miracle.
The onset of the coronavirus crisis led moreover to an unusually clear show of why describing a “vertical of power” is one thing and seeing a “vertical of confusion” is quite another.
President Putin laid responsibility on the country’s regional governors for dealing with the crisis from the start without, it seems, saying how or helping them financially to do so. Some governors were better placed than others. Governors more recently appointed by the presidential administration have suffered from their lack of local roots. The regions have been underfunded for years. Putin’s remarks as to the need to protect not just the health of the people but the economy led to some regions lifting restrictions early, or scarcely introducing them. The overall results have been mixed.
The role forced on Russia’s governors has nevertheless had three consequences that do not sit well with the central objectives behind the constitutional changes pursued by Putin and his administration: Some governors have been more popular than others, but the contrast between their active role in facing the national health emergency and the President’s passivity has told against both Putin and his Moscow-based administration; the absence of clear central guidance as to dealing with that emergency and the absence of proper regional financing have led a considerable number of regional administrations to follow policies evidently out of line with Kremlin preferences, in support for example both of the June 24 victory and the pre-scripted popular vote currently underway until July 1; and, thirdly, the overall message of the regime that Russia’s privileged powerful see Russia’s ordinary citizens as persons whose needs can be neglected, particularly when the “interests of the state” require it, has fed into an already existing resentment with Moscow’s overmighty power in the Russian Federation.
Putin’s decision not to spend significant amounts of money on the crisis despite the considerable sums available in Russia’s National Welfare Fund (saving it instead to protect the country’s “strategic assets” headed by some of his closest allies) sent its own message to the Russian public. Small and medium-sized businesses were supposed to pay to sustain their staff while lockdown (compulsory holidays as Putin put it) continued, despite the facts that few of those businesses had savings to draw upon in such cases, and that few individual Russians, apart from the rich, had savings either. There was no effort to increase cooperation between various branches of government to work out either their own ways to resolve possible health risks or ways in which they might help each other. Russia’s health system has been neglected for a long time, leaving medical staff at considerably greater risk from COVID-19 infection than, it would seem, those of any other country.
The principal aims of Russia’s ruling group have since late March been to build further defenses of its power beyond those already implicit in the constitutional amendments, to develop as foolproof a way for the popular vote approving that package to look legitimate, and to get it done as soon as possible despite the possible risks to public health. The regime’s guiding light has continued to be the reinforcement of the power of its inner core up to and beyond 2024, coupled with the fear that any shift away from the vertical toward more flexible evolution would prove destructive. Recent additional measures include giving the internal security forces immunity for what they may do in the course of police duty, removing the right to vote for protesters, whether in a group or individually, for intervening in clashes between police and others, spreading “fake news”, or hooliganism, and in effect excluding members of parties not already represented in the state or regional parties from campaigning for election to public office or seats in such parliaments. Those already in place have of course been attentive to the wishes of the Kremlin, although the regime pawn United Russia is held in growing contempt and needs Kremlin-directed administrative support if it is to retain adequate future membership in the relevant state institutions across the country.
The passage on May 13 in the Duma of legislation to open up elections to postal and electronic voting was more than a way to step up the opportunity for the existing authorities to fix the results. The pretense that it was to be done to protect the populace from the risks of coronavirus infection fooled few, if anyone. The reality that the authorities feared what would be the result of the eventual popular vote was readily understood, particularly in the light of polls measuring trust in Putin continuing to fall, to around 25 percent. The extraordinary claim by Putin that the coronavirus peak had been reached and that both the victory parade on June 24 and voting between June 25 and July 1 would be made safe were similarly evidence of both haste and intent to fix the outcome rapidly. He is at risk of seeming to have put fellow Russians at peril for the sake of his own advantage, and to have relied on deceit to see him through.
Whatever the result may be claimed to be after July 1, and even if the constitutional changes are put in place, Putin and his regime will not adequately have validated his claim to be Russia’s President for Life, successfully addressed Russia’s increasing domestic tensions, or re-established his approval rating with Russia’s citizens. The new powers he may be said to have acquired could well be difficult to use, or would require increased repression if that were attempted. Such an approach would put him further in debt to Russia’s security organs and its military, and subject him to the interests of those running Russia’s strategic state-owned enterprises. It could also oblige him to try to rein in the regions once again. Russia’s economic difficulties were already evident before COVID-19. Putin and his colleagues then had no effective policies that might have moved Russia beyond what amounted to stagnation. There have yet to be any signs of policies being considered that might change that outlook, despite the deeper challenge before them because of the health emergency. Nor have there been any indications of a rethink in Russia’s international policies and ambitions, for all the hopes of the public of more attention being paid to their domestic interests.
Predicting the future is of course a mug’s game, but also a necessary exercise. There has been a political shift this year in Russia. It now looks improbable that Putin can securely reassert his full control and maintain it beyond 2024, or perhaps even to the end of his present term. He has drifted into the position of a leader who has nowhere to lead, heading a country that senses a need for some as yet undefined changes in its governance and destiny. Refixing the present structure in place with supposedly new and stronger authoritarian glue will not work for long, with a formerly charismatic President still in charge. Four years until the next presidential election is a long time. The thought of Putin as National Leader for perhaps 12 more years after that is unreal. He claims to have raised Russia from its knees. He now asks Russians to sink to them.