Why coronavirus crisis may keep Putin in office until 2036

Why We Wrote This

In January, Vladimir Putin seemed to be laying out a future for Russia where the country would no longer revolve around the presidency. But this week he unexpectedly shifted gears. Why?

Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking during a session of the lower house of the Russian parliament in Moscow on March 10, 2020, says he supports a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow him to seek another term and remain in power.

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As a huge package of amendments that will completely overhaul Russia’s constitution worked its way through parliament this week, authorities unveiled a last-minute change that would allow Vladimir Putin to run again for president after what was meant to be his final term in that role. But Russian experts say that the sudden change in plan may not have been a power grab, but rather Russian elites’ desire for a steady hand in increasingly uncertain times.

Analysts say the amendment that would allow Mr. Putin to potentially remain president until 2036 might have been brought on by the coronavirus panic, crashing oil prices, and the general sense of impending chaos. But for Russia’s ruling political class, legitimacy is a perpetual sore point. The first months of 2020 have been scary, and threaten greater turmoil in the near future.

“Putin is seen as a rock of stability,” says Mikhail Chernysh of the Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “He has legitimacy and trust in the eyes of the public, who see him as the guarantor of social peace and stability. It seems likely that he has succumbed to demands from the elite that he create this option that he might stay beyond 2024.”

When Vladimir Putin first announced sweeping constitutional reforms two months ago to rebalance relations between Russia’s presidency and its parliament, it looked like he was paving the way to leave the presidency in 2024. That almost certainly would include taking up another authoritative role, but one within a more collective leadership.

But that goal appears to have been overtaken by a more ambitious ideological project – and, perhaps, a touch of coronavirus panic.

As the huge package of amendments that will completely overhaul Russia’s constitution worked its way through parliament this week, authorities unveiled a last-minute change that will allow Mr. Putin to run again for president after what was supposed to have been his final term. Russian experts say that the sudden change in plan may not have been a power grab – since the presidency will still be weakened under the reforms – but rather Russian elites’ desire for a steady hand in increasingly uncertain times.

“Putin is seen as a rock of stability,” says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “If you look at sociological data, it is clear that few institutions enjoy much public trust. But Putin has become an institution in his own right. He has legitimacy and trust in the eyes of the public, who see him as the guarantor of social peace and stability. It seems likely that he has succumbed to demands from the elite that he create this option that he might stay beyond 2024.”

“Putting his imprint on the constitution”

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this constitutional remake, which has now been passed through both houses of parliament and been approved by all 85 regions of the country, and will now be voted on in a public referendum on April 22.

The 68-page constitutional reform package, including almost 400 amendments, will now aim to alter the ideological nature of the state by overlaying the liberal character of the 1993 constitution authored by Boris Yeltsin with the social conservatism that has marked the Putin era. That includes traditional family values, heterosexual marriage, faith in God, and a ban on questioning the defense of the “Fatherland,” such as the country’s role in World War II. It will also enshrine economic rights, such as indexation of pensions and a guaranteed minimum income pegged to the official subsistence level.

Aside from some minor tweaks, Mr. Putin has avoided major constitutional changes for almost two decades. But for Russia, which has had five different constitutions in a little more than a century, this massive new project represents a reversion to the unfortunate tradition in which each new leader redefines the nature of the state through the prism of his own beliefs and goals – which is pretty much the reverse of how a constitution functions in most Western countries.

“This is Putin putting his personal imprint on the constitution” much as Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, and Yeltsin did in the past, says Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economic sociologist and member of the liberal Committee of Civil Initiatives. “Of course this devalues the whole idea of a constitution. It becomes just a piece of paper, subject to change whenever power shifts.”

Dmitri Lovetsky/AP
Street art sculptor Alexander Pravdin stands near his work, a 3-ton stone with a crown named "The Monument to Russian President Vladimir Putin," in Siversky settlement, 37 miles south of St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 11, 2020.

Analysts say the last-moment amendment that would reset the constitutional clock and allow Mr. Putin to run again in 2024, potentially remaining president until 2036, was probably not part of the original plan and might have been brought on by the coronavirus panic – which is just starting to hit Russia – crashing oil prices and adding to the general sense of impending chaos.

“This new amendment is actually in contradiction to the main thrust of the reform package,” says Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser. “Putin wanted to create a transitional system, to reduce the country’s traditional dependence on a single strong leader while himself remaining in an influential post. Why would he want to return to the presidency with diminished powers?”

But for Russia’s ruling political class, which cannot claim to have been elected in free and fair democratic polls, legitimacy is a perpetual sore point. Analysts say that the first months of 2020 have been scary, and threaten greater turmoil in the near future.

“In fact, Putin would probably like to leave, if he could find a way to go and enjoy his old age,” Mr. Chernysh says. “But he is a hostage to the elites. He is the only institution that can provide cohesion, and ensure that open conflict won’t break out if he goes. It is by no means certain that he will run again, but he apparently needs to provide this symbolic reassurance at this very tumultuous time.”

Winning over the public?

Many Russian experts think the ideological additions to the constitution are little more than an effort to bring out the vote on April 22, since many ordinary Russians are indifferent to changes in the power structure but might be attracted by slogans that espouse traditional values and promises of economic security.

“I don’t take seriously the amendments about traditional marriage, faith, or history,” says Viktor Sheinis, one of the authors of Russia’s 1993 constitution. “They are just included because there are groups of the population who are attracted by these ideas.”

But Mr. Markov, the former Putin adviser, says these amendments were added during the process of public consultations over the past two months, and that the authorities felt they had to be included.

“Traditional values like God, nation, and family run very deep in the Russian popular consciousness,” he says. “These are dangerous times for Russia, especially the conflict with the West. People want to define who we are, what we stand for, and so we have to have these ideological amendments.”

Opinion polls suggest that younger Russians are more modern-minded and tolerant than their elders, so cementing a ban on same-sex marriage in the constitution, and other traditional values, could conceivably present an impediment to social evolution in the future, some experts say.

“Perhaps we are not at the same stage as Western societies, but young Russians are different, more worldly than older ones,” says Mr. Chernysh. “However, since constitutions don’t play the same role in shaping people’s lives in Russia as they do in, say, the U.S., it’s probably not the obstacle to progress that it might appear to be. I am sure that if social mores change, we’ll find a way to change the laws too.”

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