Russian president Vladimir Putin has always enjoyed the decisive move that takes everyone by surprise. Long periods of quiet are broken by a sudden, shocking manoeuvre.
This was the case with his package of reforms following the Beslan school hostage crisis in September 2004, and again with the announcement in September 2011 that he planned to return to the Kremlin, following the four-year presidency of his close colleague, Dmitry Medvedev. The Russian constitution, agreed after a referendum in December 1993, stipulates that nobody can serve more than two consecutive terms, and so, after the gap, Putin legitimately returned to the Kremlin.
On January 15 2020 in his annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, Putin sprang yet another surprise package of changes, signalling the beginning of a transition period that could last up to the end of his fourth constitutionally-mandated term of office in 2024.
The speech fired the starting gun on another managed succession, although Putin’s personal role at the end of this time is unclear. It appears he is seeking to create a management structure for the country’s affairs without his direct involvement.
Putin’s speech was followed by the immediate resignation of Medvedev as prime minister and of his cabinet, and the appointment of the former head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin, as prime minister. Medvedev was appointed to the new post of deputy head of the Security Council, subordinate to the council’s head, Putin.
But Putin’s proposals represent neither a “January coup”, as some Russian media described it, nor democratisation. Rather, they are a way to ensure the continuity of the current elite and the system they preside over.
Where power lies
In his speech, Putin outlined the most significant package of constitutional reforms since 1993, suggesting seven amendments to the constitution. Some have a democratising edge while others are clearly designed to create a repertoire of institutions to perpetuate Putinism without Putin.
The most crucial was a suggestion by Putin to allow the State Duma to appoint the prime minister, and then “the deputy prime ministers and federal ministers at the prime minister’s recommendation”. The president would have no right to reject the candidates approved by parliament.
This would represent a major transfer of power back to the legislature from the presidential executive, raising the status of parliament. If approved, the changes could also provide a path for the United Russia political party and its leader (currently still Medvedev) to formalise its control of power from within the legislature.
Putin did not stop there, and he also asserted that Russia: “Cannot properly advance and even exist sustainably as a parliamentary republic.” The country would therefore remain “a strong presidential republic” – and a proposed constitutional change would reinforce this structure. The president would set the government’s tasks and priorities and maintain the right to sack the prime minister and ministers. The president would continue to exercise direct control over the armed forces and the entire law enforcement system (the siloviki).
A third change concerned the personnel staffing the nation’s top offices, who would no longer be allowed to have foreign citizenship or residence permit. The requirements would be even tougher for presidential candidates, who must have had permanent residency for at least 25 years with no foreign citizenship or residence permit.
Putin then noted that:
People are discussing the constitutional provision under which one person cannot hold the post of the President of the Russian Federation for more than two successive terms. I do not regard this as a matter of principle, but I nevertheless support and share this view.
This classically ambiguous formulation pointed the way to the imposition of a conclusive two-term limit on future Russian presidents, rather than the current limit on them serving two consecutive terms.
A fourth change stressed the need to increase the role of governors in federal decision-making due to Russia’s enormous size and diversity. In 2000, Putin restored the State Council as a presidential consultative body, bringing together the heads of the regions and some officials. He has now extolled the quality of its work and proposed making it a formal constitutional body. Many have speculated that the State Council could then provide a platform for his continued indirect leadership.
Sovereignty and living standards
Fifth, he proposed to entrench in the constitution a law passed in December 2015 that granted domestic legislation priority over international law. Putin argued that: “Russia can be and can remain Russia only as a sovereign state. Our nation’s sovereignty must be unconditional.” The changes would constitutionally entrench the principle that Russian norms take precedence over international law and treaties.
A sixth proposal reflected a major theme of his speech: the question of improving the country’s standard of living and dealing with demographic, climate and other issues. He suggested a constitutional change to “seal the principles of a unified system of public authority”. This would include expanding the authority of local government, alongside a constitutional provision to ensure the regular adjustment of pensions for inflation.
A final seventh proposal granted the Federation Council, Russia’s upper legislative house, the constitutional authority to dismiss Constitutional and Supreme Court judges in the event of misconduct, on the proposal of the president. How such misconduct would be defined opens up a range of possible abuses by politicians.
As the amendments represented “substantial changes”, Putin proposed they would be put to the people in a referendum. A 75-strong working group has already begun work to formulate the text of the draft amendments to the constitution.
Overall, the changes slightly diminish the president’s powers and restore greater balance in the relationship between the executive and legislative authorities. The introduction of some checks and balances would ensure that Putin’s legacy would not be easily undone. But the reforms are as much about ensuring that Putin’s system will endure as about perpetuating his leadership.