international analysis and commentary

Putin, now and forever

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Vladimir Putin has lasted twenty years and counting in the Kremlin by following the tried-and-tested rules of Russian politics: convincing his elites that life with him is better than any alternative existence without him, mobilizing the public around an external enemy, and persuading the entire society that he can maintain the status quo of the first two rules.

In 2018, Putin won reelection to a second consecutive term, but faced the end of power as the Russian Constitution currently limits chief executives to only two consecutive terms. With Moscow focused on the “2024 question” from the beginning and public opinion approval dropping 19% on the question of whether Russia is heading in the right direction and 15% on Putin personally over the first two years of his final term, Putin made his big move to reset the formal political life of Russia to maintain his informal power over elites and the public.

“Time” chose Vladimir Putin as “person of the year” for 2007.

 

Even as many observers noticed a concerted pressure campaign against Belarus towards the end of 2019 and into the new year, suggesting that Russia would annex the country in some way to make Putin the head of an enlarged “Union State,” the Russian president instead announced a raft of domestic constitutional changes and requested the resignation of his long-time Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his entire cabinet.

These changes will alter the balance of formal power and responsibilities between Russia’s president, prime minister, parliament, judicial branch, and an amorphous “state council.” The new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, a participant in the elite-oriented “night hockey league” previously did not enjoy a high public profile, but served as the head of the tax service, which gained renown for fully digitizing both retail and business-to-business tax payments. The amount of VAT tax uncollected by the state declined from 20% to 1% over his tenure by this increase of digital surveillance over commercial life. His challenge will be to harness the same efficiency and utilization of technology to oversee wealth and income redistribution through Putin’s “national projects,” a collection of $400 billion in infrastructure and social services investment promised in 2018 for the duration of Putin’s presidential term.

Beyond the activities of the prime minister, Putin will spend the next four years reshaping formal politics in Russia to accomplish two big tasks: ensure that he remains the one indispensable person to the Russian elite and public and that no one person can challenge him or the system. The proposed constitutional changes, which have already started the legislative journey to adoption, accomplish those goals by increasing the resilience of the Russian state against external forces, forcing competition between political institutions, and blocking any successor from amassing the power currently enjoyed by Putin.

In recognition of the potential external sources of political change, Putin has articulated a more isolationist pose for the Russian state. He has proposed giving the Russian Constitution precedence over international law, barring persons holding “important positions for ensuring the country’s security” from holding foreign citizenship or residence permits abroad, and requiring presidential candidates to have lived in Russia continuously for 25 years (up from the current 10 and clearly a rule aimed at preventing anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny from running for office after he spent a semester at Yale University in the USA in 2010).

To prevent social discontent from rising into open opposition like in the regional color revolutions, Putin has also proposed two explicitly populist measures: regular indexation of pensions and requiring the minimum wage to be no lower than the subsistence minimum.

The Russian state will also be more evenly divided between political institutions. Whereas presidential powers are fairly broad now, Putin envisions more checks and balances between them so that he will be the only person able to adjudicate disputes and oversee personnel changes. The effect will be that he will control people through institutions and institutions through people.

The president currently appoints the prime minister with consent by the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, but now the legislature will have the power to approve or reject the candidate, as well as candidates at the rank of deputy prime minister and federal ministers, even over the objection of the president. The Federation Council, the upper house of Parliament, will have the power to propose the dismissal of federal judges, can work with the president to remove constitutional and supreme court judges, and consult on the appointment of law enforcement agencies.

Finally, Putin recognized that the absence of a successor around whom the elites could coalesce is one of the best mechanisms to defend against true political succession. He has proposed removing the “in a row” clause from the article regulating the maximum number of presidential terms, meaning that no one after him will be able to serve two presidential terms and then take a break before returning. Putin has also proposed to consolidate the status and role of a State Council, which would set guidelines for Russia’s domestic and foreign policy and goals for the country’s development, clearly a body that could shape the possibilities and powers of the next president.

One of Russia’s great reformers, Pyotr Stolypin, once remarked that “In Russia, every ten years everything changes, and nothing changes in 200 years.” The advance of modern technology means that Vladimir Putin will only have to spend the next four years changing everything to make sure nothing changes.