On 15 January, he announced a radical constitutional shake-up, changes which would increase the powers of Parliament, Cabinet, and trim presidential authority.
London: Soon after the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, Winston Churchill pronounced perhaps his best-known commentary on Russia: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” When President Vladimir Putin gave his state of the nation address last month to announce a radical constitutional shake-up, the changes first appeared to be a thinly disguised attempt by him to hold on to power beyond his term limit in 2024. But developments since then have complicated such an easy interpretation. Is Putin attempting to stay in power, or are the changes simply geared to ensure the survival of Putinism and its ideologies? Unlike Donald Trump, who reveals his shallow personality in daily tweets, Putin doesn’t use Twitter; he keeps people guessing. Putin is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
From the day of his re-election in 2018, Kremlin watchers have been speculating on what Vladimir Putin would do at the end of the final six-year term. After all, he’s been here before. In 2008, the then Constitution forbade him serving a further term as President, so his solution was to swap jobs with Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, who filled in as President between 2008 and 2012. In 2011, Putin announced that he would return to the Kremlin after sitting out this one term as Prime Minister. In reality, Prime Minister Putin pulled the strings during the “interim” and any reforms made by Medvedev were quickly reversed. To allow him to stay until 2024, when he will be 72, Putin changed the Constitution to two six-year terms as President. So will history be repeated?
This is unlikely. If an interim President, perhaps Medvedev again, served six years, Putin would be 78 on starting a new six-year term and 84 starting the second. On the other hand, ageing autocrats rarely leave office voluntarily, so the 64,000 rouble question was what would Putin do in 2024? For months, Russia’s political elite have been abuzz with speculation about his future plans.
To everyone’s surprise, on 15 January, President Putin announced a radical constitutional shake-up during his state of the nation address, changes which would increase the powers of Parliament and the Cabinet, at the same time trimming presidential authority. In just seven days, the Russian government not only acted on Putin’s recommendations, but hastily convened a “constitutional committee” and put them before the Duma, Russia’s Parliament. They were accepted by the Duma at the first reading with, of course, 100% in favour. The Kremlin’s haste in drafting and passing the changes, a full four years before President Putin’s final (?) term is up, dumbfounded experts. The move was totally out of keeping with Putin’s traditional preference of keeping decisions to the last moment.
So why did he act so prematurely and what are President Putin’s intentions? Social media has been awash with possible theories. Is he ill? Is he spooked by falling popularity? Noting the recent and sudden removal of UK’s Prince Harry from public view, some are even bizarrely speculating that Russia’s own “Meghan Markle”, Putin’s alleged long term lover, the bendy gymnast, 36-year-old Alina Kabaeva, with whom many believe he fathered a boy in 2015 and twins in 2019, is dragging him from the limelight.
The truth is probably more mundane. Some experts believe that President Putin is simply arranging things while there is time and opportunity to do so. He has already made it clear that he doesn’t want to go down in history as a bumbling old Brezhnev-type figure. Others note that he seems to be using the moment to ensure that a successor doesn’t change course. The amendments to the Constitution are all about extending the life of Putinism; maintaining the central idea of national independence, the exclusion of external influence, the continuance of statism and a conservative ideology.
One of the standout Constitutional amendments was to make the State Council a formal government agency enshrined in the Constitution. At the moment, it’s an advisory board packed with 85 regional governors and other officials including political party leaders. It’s so large that when it meets it fills a hall in the Kremlin. But President Putin has designs on its future. The new role of the State Council is to ensure the proper functioning and interaction between state bodies, and determining the main directions of domestic, foreign and socio-economic policy. Everyone will be watching the exact scope of its powers, which will become clear in a separate law yet to be published.
Many experts surmise that the State Council could grow into a committee like the Soviet Politburo, with a broad purview covering most policy areas. By becoming the powerful leader of the new State Council, Putin would be in the perfect place where power resides; a place where he can step above the presidential post.
Critics already smell a rat. A statement published by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta on 24 January describes the amendments as a “constitutional coup”. Opposition leaders quickly issued a statement signed by many well-known opponents of Putin: “Today, we, citizens of the Russian Federation, declare that a constitutional coup is taking place in the country before our very eyes. We are confident that the purpose of the coup is to keep Vladimir Putin and his corrupt regime in power for life. They are creating a new state governing body that is not under the control of society—the Council of State”.
They may have a point. In the past 20 years, Mr Putin’s regime has killed too many people and misappropriated too many billions of dollars to make it plausible that he would ever voluntarily give up effective power. The murder of political opponents, such as Boris Nemtsov, is no way to foster genuine competition for power.
And it’s not only Putin who will benefit from his staying in power. His former KGB colleagues swore their allegiance to him when he first became President and then became the new aristocracy, a new class system bound by intermarriages, god parentage and family ties. Many top managers in Russia’s state-owned firms in the oil and gas and banking industries are the children of Putin’s close friends and former KGB colleagues. They see their sudden enrichment not as corruption, but as an entitlement and reward for service. Without President Putin at the top, their wealth could be in danger.
Following the Duma’s approval, President Putin has set up a working group, 75-people strong, to draw up concrete proposals for the reforms, and has already given them their instructions. Some kind of public confirmatory vote is expected before the summer. The Kremlin has ruled out a formal referendum. It would be too risky.
As Alexei Navalny, the main opposition leader tweeted after President Putin’s address: “How dumb are all those who said Putin would leave in 2024”?
John Dobson is a former British diplomat to Moscow and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.