Why Putin’s political shake-up isn’t just about power

Why We Wrote This

Russia’s current political system is all about one man: Vladimir Putin. The changes he has proposed will keep him in power, but they also open the door to a broader political playing field in Russia.

Anton Vaganov/Reuters
Vladimir Putin's plan to change the Russian Constitution, which he revealed Wednesday, means he likely will hold a new office in 2024 after his presidential term ends. Here he is seen speaking during his address on a broadcast shown on the side of a building in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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Since Vladimir Putin announced his long-awaited plan for restructuring the Russian government Wednesday, much Western media attention has been focused on how it will allow him to retain power after his current presidential term ends in 2024.

Under Mr. Putin’s plan, the presidency’s power will be reduced in favor of a strengthened parliament and prime minister. Also, the once advisory State Council will gain new influence over foreign affairs.

But for many Russians, the constitutional changes are just as important for how they might enable a peaceful transition from one leader to the next – something that has always been fraught in Russian history. And while Mr. Putin will retain influence, the changes allow for a Russia ruled by representative government, rather than autocrat.

“The purpose of all this is to change the composition of power to provide for a painless transition of the presidency from Putin to another person,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a political sociologist. “Whatever post Putin takes up, that’s where the center of power will be, at least in the beginning. First the new president will have to work in tandem with Putin. But gradually, Putin may disengage.”

One thing was made very clear in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s national address Wednesday: The federation’s long-standing leader isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Mr. Putin outlined the sweeping constitutional changes that would allow him to retain some power even after leaving office in 2024, by redistributing power away from the presidency to the prime minister and the parliament.

But for many Russians, the changes proposed also come with a glimmer of hope that a peaceful transition from one leader to the next may be possible – something that has traditionally been fraught with instability and intra-elite conflict over Russian history. And while the constitutional change will ensure Mr. Putin’s continued influence, it opens the door to a Russia ruled by representative government, rather than autocrat.

“The purpose of all this is to change the composition of power to provide for a painless transition of the presidency from Putin to another person” when his term expires in 2024, says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a political sociologist who has been observing Russia’s shifting power elites for at least three decades. “What matters is not who will be the next president, but where Putin will go. Whatever post Putin takes up, that’s where the center of power will be, at least in the beginning. First the new president will have to work in tandem with Putin. But gradually, Putin may disengage.”

Planning for a post-Putin presidency

The plan that Mr. Putin outlined in his annual state of the nation address to parliament is still a work in progress. But its main elements would significantly weaken the all-powerful presidency enshrined in Russia’s 1993 Constitution and devolve significant powers to the State Duma (parliament’s lower house), including the right to appoint the prime minister and government, as well as to the Federation Council (parliament’s upper house). A somewhat weakened president would be limited to two terms of office, rather than two consecutive terms – a loophole that has enabled Mr. Putin himself to remain in power for the past two decades.

Another highly significant, but as yet unexplained, amendment would give constitutional status and plenary powers to the State Council, a hitherto obscure Kremlin advisory body that was mainly a talking shop for top leaders rather than an active participant in governance.

In a clear sign that Mr. Putin is in a hurry, he immediately accepted the resignation of the entire government and moved Dmitry Medvedev, his longtime prime minster and political partner, to a prestigious but powerless job in the Kremlin Security Council. He then appointed a new prime minister: Mikhail Mishustin, a professorial, English-speaking technocrat who has radically reformed and modernized Russia’s taxation system over the past decade, reputedly raising tax revenues by 40%.

Russian official sources say that, after a public discussion, a nationwide referendum will be held to approve the revised constitution, probably before the end of this year.

Stepan Goncharov, a researcher at the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, says that the number of Russians who say they would like to see fundamental political change has been steadily growing, from 57% in 2017 to 59% in 2019. “Real incomes have been falling, protest moods are growing, and so the pressure on the authorities to relieve tensions and demonstrate that changes are taking place is very strong,” he says. “It remains to be seen whether these initiatives are seen as effective.”

Asked about Mr. Putin’s plan Thursday, a few Russians expressed pessimism, tinged with fatalism. “I think we are heading in the same direction as China, where everything is under the state control, nobody is allowed to speak his mind, and we are all a united and happy state,” says Natalya Omskaya, a 30-something exhibition organizer.

“If this is all about who will take this or that post, it’s a no-win situation for most of us anyway,” says Alla Anashkina, a bookkeeper nearing retirement age. “They should better think about how to raise our pensions.”

A system “more ordinary”

Most Western coverage has focused on the undeniably astonishing spectacle of a Kremlin leader wielding his undisputed authority to rearrange his nation’s constitutional furniture in order to ensure the reins of power remain in his own hands, even if he intends to eventually transition from political center stage. One of three basic options that have been under active discussion for the past year now looks certain to be implemented.

First, after his current term ends, Mr. Putin might return to the post of prime minister, which he held during the single term of Mr. Medvedev’s presidency, but with newly minted powers that no previous Russian prime minister has enjoyed.

Second, he might take leadership of the freshly empowered State Council, which analysts say will probably be endowed with control over formulating Russia’s foreign policy and commanding the security forces.

Third, Mr. Putin might succeed in his long-standing efforts to unify Russia with neighboring Belarus, and then take the leadership of a whole new state, with a new constitutional setup. It’s a deeply troubled project that has triggered passionate protests in Belarus, but talks to complete the union state have intensified in recent months.

Some Russians argue there is no contradiction between Mr. Putin hanging around in some capacity to guarantee stability, and his stated goal of redistributing power in favor of the elected parliament. Although post-Soviet Russia’s brief experiment with parliamentary democracy ended in gunfire and restoration of Kremlin supremacy in 1993, there are many who still argue that such a vast and diverse country as Russia would be served better by a representative legislature than by a single strong leader.

“Putin aims to change Russia’s governing system from that of an extraordinary situation to one that is more ordinary,” says Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser. “We needed extraordinary measures following the catastrophic 1990s when, under Boris Yeltsin, Russian statehood was nearly destroyed. Russia needed strong personal rule, a kind of dictatorship like Charles de Gaulle imposed in France [when the Fourth Republic collapsed], because the country needed to be saved. ...

“This has by now been accomplished. Putin fulfilled this role, and Russia is strong and stable again. We can move to a more ordinary system, phase out personal power, and ensure a greater distribution of power.”

Mr. Markov disputes the view that Mr. Putin is just acting to preserve and extend his own personal authority. “Look,” he says, “if Putin wanted to be declared president for life, he could easily make that happen. But he is doing this instead. Putin wants to leave power in 2024 having moved Russia to a more institutional and collective form of government. Possibly he will continue to play a role within that collective, but the system will be changed.”

Others take a dimmer view, and argue that it’s all just smoke and mirrors aimed at obscuring the lack of genuine political reform.

“Changes in the wording of the constitution don’t mean real change,” says Viktor Sheinis, one of the original authors of Russia’s 1993 Constitution. “If the basic system remains the same, and parliamentary deputies are elected by the same means they are today, then the composition of the Duma won’t change and the appearance of redistributed power will remain purely formal. What we need is serious electoral reform, to introduce real political competition into the system. Then we might see some positive changes.”

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