Путин Perestroika Putin Putin and liberalism Putin and liberals Putin Succession Putin Successor Putin the balancer Putin's 2024 problem Putin's constitutional amendments Putin's Domestic Policy Putin's missile speech Putin's soft authoritarianism Regime Transformation Russia Russian constitution Russian Domestic Policy Russian elections Russian opposition Russian politics Russian presidential election

REPORT: Putin’s Perestroika?

by Gordon M. Hahn


Russia’s soft authoritarian leader, President Vladimir Putin, has sent shock waves through Moscow and the Russian elite with the constitutional and government shakeup he proposed on Wednesday in a speech to the Federal Assembly, composed of the State Duma and Federation Council, the lower and upper chamber of Russia’s parliament. Contrary to the Washington consensus and cartoonish rusological ‘analysis’ that predominates mass media and academia regarding Putin as ‘dictator’ and today’s ‘Stalin’ or ‘Hitler’, he has proposed changes that augur some re-democratization of Russia’s political system through constitutional changes. At the same time, however, the number options and scenarios opened up by Putin’s proposals leave him, as is his style, with considerable room for maneuver. It is impossible to know precisely what Putin’s endgame is here, and it is possible that he has not decided that for himself. The answer to the question ‘Will he stay or will he go?’ in particular the time frame for the latter was not clearly answered.

However, the proposed amendments appear to mark the beginning of a process that will not only address the problem of 2024, when his second consecutive term will end and the constitution requires he leave the presidency. They might also be aimed at eventually allowing him to give up power, but that endgame could be a decade down the road. Putting forward these proposed amendments is very likely a trial balloon to check the reaction of the elite and public. Elite and public reaction will inform Putin’s next steps, including final decisions on which constitutional changes he will ultimately support and whether he will remain president or adopt another post or other posts when his term ends in order to keep his hand on the helm under the new president(s). In any case, the 2024 ‘transition’ arrived on 15 January 2020, and Putin’s proposed changes appear to mark a modest, if significant de-authoritarianization of Russia’s political system.

Constitutional Changes       

Putin broached the idea of constitutional changes in his address – change first proposed by State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin earlier this year in the form of giving the Duma greater control over the government – with somewhat open-ended support for changing the words in the constitution which made it possible for him to return to the presidency in 2012. He had mentioned the possibility of amending Article 81.3, in particular its limit on one and the same person serving as president “for more than two terms in a row” a few weeks ago in his annual marathon press conference. Now, in his speech to the Federal Assembly he again mentioned this, but he did not specify clearly in what way the stipulation should be changed.

His fuzzy wording opens up the possibility that he may not want to simply repeal the words ‘in a row’ but would replace ‘for more two terms in a row’ with the words ‘three’ or ‘four terms’ with or without the words ‘in a row.’ If Putin seeks to repeal the words in a row, then he would no longer be eligible to run for president, and Dmitrii Medvedev – who is now former prime minister as a result of the government’s resignation (see below) – would be limited to a single term, since he had a term in 2008-2012. But again, there is no clear statement from Putin specifying his position beyond supporting discussing this issue. His claim, in the speech, that he does not see this as a “principal” question gives the impression that he was assuming possible removal of just the words ‘in a row’ and that he plans to leave the presidency, since Putin often attempts to downplay precisely important matters, especially those that touch on his power. Any other change to Article 81.3 would indeed be even more ‘principal’: adding to the number of terms. He called for a discussion of this issue and proposals on other constitutional changes from other bodies and public groups, in effect opening up a nationwide discussion on the presidency, the constitution, checks and balances, his post-2024 role, and, in effect democracy versus authoritarianism.

His other constitutional proposals appear designed to be implemented before September 2021’s Duma elections. They mark a significant redistribution of power, moving the political system away from a presidential system to a more liberal republican presidential-parliamentary system and balancing the branches of government more evenly by strengthening checks and balances. Each of the federal branches of power receives an upgrade in terms of power and independence, except the executive branch’s presidential part. The legislative Duma and Federation Council would receive new powers of control over the federal government. The Constitutional and Supreme Courts would receive more independence from the executive branch and presidency.

Specifically, Putin proposed transferring the power to appoint the federal government – the Prime Minister (PM), deputy PMs, and ministers – from the president, who presently nominates not only the government’s prime minister – to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament or Federal Assembly. The President will no longer play any role in the formation of the government or the appointment of the country’s arguably second-most powerful figure. Also under Putin’s proposal, the prime minister will propose the candidates for the government’s deputy prime ministerial and ministerial positions independently – with no role for the president – to the Duma for its approval by a majority of deputies. The present but soon to be defunct system allowed the president to dissolve the Duma and call new elections, if the Duma’s majority rejects his nominee for the premiership three times. Thus, the president also loses some leverage over the Duma. The president would retain the right to remove the prime minister and his government and propose a new prime minister to the Duma. Overall, the result of this reform would be to empower both the prime minister and the Duma by making the government less dependent on the president and more dependent on the Duma. It would also weaken the power of the president in relation to both, creating a presidential-parliamentary system in place of the former ‘super-presidential’ system for which Russia has been often criticized.

In addition, it was proposed to further empower the Federal Assembly’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, the senators of which represent Russia’s regions. The Federation Council would now have the power to advise the president on his nominees to head the ‘siloviki’ or power ministries (Defense Minister, Internal Affairs Minister, Prosecutor-General, and the directors of the FSB, SVR, and GRU) and “perhaps” the regions’ prosecutors, currently approved by regional legislative assemblies. Putin also proposed that the Federation receive the power to approve any presidential request to remove judges from the Constitutional and Supreme Courts in cases where the president has the constitutional power to do so, in particular if a judge has acted in ways that compromise the dignity of the court. He also proposed to increase the Constitutional Court’s role by empowering it upon a presidential request to review legislative bills and perhaps other official legal documents – both federal and regional – for their constitutionality before they are considered by parliament. Thus, Putin’s proposals also empower the Federal Assembly’s upper house and increase the independence and role of the high courts. Thе above proposals taken together would overturn much of the presidential nature of Russia’s constitution, spread power across the three branches of government more evenly, and increase the number of checks and balances.

In addition, Putin also called for codifying the role of the State Council (Gosudarstvennyi sovet or GosSovet) – a body composed of the regions’ increasingly popular governors and some federal officials and chaired by the president – in the constitution. What role and functions it would receive was left undeclared. If Putin intends to leave the presidency, then it is possible that the GosSovet’s ‘constitutionalization’ might codify in the constitution actual power (rather then influence as a consultative body) and another form of chairmanship for the GosSovet other than the president as its chairman ex officio. It is being conjectured that if he leaves the presidency, Putin could then become its chairman of what would be a newly empowered state body. One scenario would be to invest the GosSovet, rather than the president, the power to propose the candidate for PM to the Duma. This reform would also promote the role of the governors and thus the regions at the federal level. Putin also called for strengthening interaction between state and municipal bodies and giving “broadened and strengthened” “powers and real possibilities” to the presently non-governmental bodies of local self-administration – “the level of power closest to the people.” This issue could be paired with the GosSoviet’s future powers, giving its chairman influence at all levels of Russian government. These reforms mean a decentralization of power, somewhat reversing the centralization of power Putin has implemented for two decades.

In addition to these more republican measures strengthening checks and balances horizontally and vertically, Putin suggested two constitutional amendments that would continue his revival of Russia’s security culture of vigilance against Western threats to Russia both externally (military) and internally (meddling, interference, color revolution), which had relaxed during perestroika and before NATO expansion. Thus, he proposed amending the constitution to repeal Article 15.4 which establishes international law as a constituent element of, and in the event of contradiction, above Russian federal law. However, this cannot be done by referendum, as Putin proposes. According to the constitution’s Article 9, changes made to articles in Chapters 1, 2, or 9 of the constitution must be approved by a Constitutional Assembly. Article 15.4 is in Chapter 1. Either Putin has failed to consult his lawyers, his lawyers misinformed him, or he will do this by referendum willfully in violation of the constitution. Thus, the day after the constitutional changes were proposed, Putin clarified that he had in mind international law’s supremacy over the Russian constitution should be annulled (www.ng.ru/politics/2020-01-16/1_7770_main.html), but this is not mentioned in the Russian constitution.

For similar reasons, Putin proposed barring those Russian citizens who at any time in their lives possessed dual citizenship and foreign residence permits from holding the office of the presidency. This prevents dissident émigrés from becoming president, eliminating the possibility that under a more democratic system one of his most inveterate opponents among the émigré` dissidents can become president, thereby eliminating the possibility that a Mikhail Khodorkovskii could return to Russia, win the presidency, and exact revenge for Putin’s arrest and imprisonment of him by returning the favor. Present possession of dual citizenship or a foreign resident permit would exclude holding a series of other government offices, according to Putin’s proposal. Such clauses restricting the rights of citizens with dual citizenship or foreign residency permits could be construed as violating equal rights to all citizens as stipulated in Chapter, Article 32, Sections 1 and 2. However, Article 55.3 allows restricting citizens’ rights and freedom if necessary “to defend the constitutional system, morality, health, the rights and legal interests of other citizens, and securing the country’s defense and the state’s security.” Even more relevant is Article 62.2: “A Russian Federation citizen’s possession of citizenship of a foreign state cannot diminish his rights or freedoms and does not free him from the obligations flowing from Russian citizenship, if something different is not stipulated by federal law or an international treaty of the Russian Federation.”

Solving the 2024 Problem: Options and Scenarios

Assuming Putin seeks to maintain some significant role at the apex of Russian power, he had several options for solving the 2024 problem created by two-term limit on the presidency in Russia’s constitution. First, there is the oft-touted ‘Belarus option,’ which held that Putin was pursuing some form of integration of Belarus with Russia, most likely under the Russia-Belarus Union, such that new supra-national organs would be created in which Putin could find a new office, likely union president. I argued recently that this option was unlikely to be realized because of several technical and political obstacles (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/01/15/putins-2024-belarus-option/).

Another option could be called the Chinese, Kazakhstani, or Asian model whereby the top leader takes a lesser post or no post at all and exercises power influence informally by dint of his charismatic authority, status, and reputation as ‘father of the nation.’ This model would follow the path taken by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping three decades ago or former Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev last year.

The ‘German model’ is another model. It would involve the sharp weakening of the presidency in favor of parliamentary power and the premiership (chancellorship). Putin appears to be positioning the configuration of power under the proposed constitutional reforms such that he has both the Asian and German models – or a combination of them – available as options as Russia approaches 2024, though he appears ready to choose by 2021.  

The proposed reforms’ weakening of the presidency to the benefit of other federal governmental bodies offers several options for Putin to maintain considerable power and influence. Assuming his less than clear comments on Article 81.3 do not mean he will attempt to add a term or two (consecutive or not) to the constitutional limit of two presidential terms, Putin’s proposed amendments offer several paths to the preservation of Putin’s overall power within the system.

The PM Scenario

The resignation of PM Dmitrii Medvedev and his government and the empowerment of the PM’s office under the proposed constitutional reforms seem to suggest that Putin is leaning towards reassuming the premiership along lines of s soft German model, repeating the practice of 2008-2012. Putin offered to appoint the now former president and prime minister Medvedev to a new post of deputy chairman of the Security Council now headed by the president. If this is all Medvedev will be left with after the new government is appointed and the constitutional reforms are implemented, then his political career is over in lieu of unexpected circumstances such as his defection to some opposition camp or a destabilization of the system that facilitates his resurrection. Putin’s and his own remarks at the announcement of the government’s resignation and Medvedev’s Facebook posting the next day that echoed them seem to indicate his career in the highest offices is a thing of the past (https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10156526157766851&id=175517041850).

Under the PM scenario, after his proposed constitutional amendments are adopted, Putin will have to be approved as PM by a majority vote in the Duma. The Kremlin’s increasingly unpopular party Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) or YeR holds majority but may be challenged in retaining it in the September 2021 Duma vote. Reports are that Medvedev will retain his chairmanship of the YeR (www.kommersant.ru/doc/4220791). Assuming Medvedev and Putin have parted on good terms and the former retains the YeR chairmanship, the latter can probably count on being approved as PM by the Duma.

One might ask why Putin is seeking to weaken the presidency already in 2020-2021, when his presidential term does not expire until 2024. Given the weak economy and the potential for further decline of his popularity ratings, Putin might not want to wait until 2024 to unload the responsibility of being president. An exit path would be for Putin to fire the PM after the September 2021 Duma elections, resign the presidency, and have the still presumably YeR-majority Duma nominate him for PM, after which presidential elections would have to be held within three months of the day of his resignation of the presidency, according to the constitution. During those three months, Putin as PM would be a temporary acting president in accordance with the constitution’s Article 92.2. Temporary acting presidents, according to Article 92.3, are only barred from proroguing the Duma, initiating a referendum, and proposing changes to the constitution. Here an interesting constitutional question, perhaps a loophole arises. If and when a PM becomes temporary acting president replacing a president who has just resigned, does he remain PM as well? If not, then the Duma would have to appoint a new premier and government.

Putin’s appointment of Federal Tax Service head Mikhail Mishustin as Medvedev’s successor in the White House adds a new wrinkle to the power configuration that will exist as the final decision on who Putin will support to run for the presidency (assuming he does not). It is more likely than not, but not a foregone conclusion that Mishustin is a place holder until the next convocation of the Duma sits after its membership is elected in September 2021—today’s Viktor Zubkov. However, unlike Zubkov, he is relatively young (he will turn 54 on March 3rd) and appears to have a political orientation close to the so-called ‘system liberals,’ having ties to former Finance Minister Boris Fedorov, Sergei Kirienko, and perhaps German Gref. Mishustin has some impressive credentials. He created Russia’s new ‘single window’ system for all state services, digitized the real estate register and tax payment and collection, and left the department with a reputation relatively untainted by corruption. In short, he is an effective technocrat and thus cannot be ruled out as a contender for the prime minister’s office on a longer-term basis after the new Duma sits. In that case, rather than a Zubkov, he would become a Fradkov, lasting in the White House for several more years, perhaps longer.

The other top contenders for PM in 2021 – besides Putin himself – include Accounting Chamber Chairman and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, Presidential Administration Head Anton Vaino, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitrii Kozak, Federation Council Deputy Chairman Andrei Turchak, and ‘RosTekh’ chairman Sergei Chemezov. Other dark horses are Foreign Intelligence Service Head Sergei Naryshkin and PA deputy head and former PM Sergei Kiriyenko. Narynskii features both an intel bio as SVR chief and preceded Volodin as Duma speaker, making him a dark horse candidate even for the presidency. Kirienko’s strong influence may be indicated by Mishustin’s appointment as PM. Kirienko, as PM himself in 1998, appointed Mishustin to head the tax service.

The GosSovet Scenario

Not to be ruled out is some take on the Asian option, in which Putin takes a lesser position or positions without having a hand on a lever of any executive branch office at all – for example, heading the GosSovet while simultaneously becoming chairman of the Duma (which would require him to run for a deputy’s seat) or of the Federation Council. For the Council, Putin would have to become a senator and that would require being named by a gubernatorial candidate in a regional election, who then went on to win election under the current system for selecting Federation Council senators. This could be risky, given Kremlin YeR gubernatorial candidates have lost several gubernatorial elections recently. Thus, this an unlikely path for Putin to take. The Duma scenario is more viable. For that, Putin would likely re-assume the chairmanship of YeR, which would also need to be reformed and rebranded perhaps by merging it with the ONF (the Russia-wide People’s Front). Although winning a Duma seat would be doable, it may be too ‘demeaning’ for a recently sitting president. This leaves the GosSoviet and Security Council options – in addition to the premiership – as the most viable non-presidential options for Putin other than retirement.

The resignation of PM Dmitrii Medvedev and the rest of the Cabinet appears to have been a reaction to, rather than part of a pre-planned maneuver tied to the proposal of constitutional changes. Cabinet members stated that although they might have expected changes to the Cabinet as a result of the reform, they did not expect Medvedev’s resignation (www.kommersant.ru/doc/4220699?from=other_read#id1847803). Kommersant reports that a source close to the Presidential Administration states that Medvedev and the Finance and Economic Development Ministers Anton Siluanov and Dmitrii Orekshin, respectively, were dissatisfied with the discussions during the planning of the constitutional reforms and the spending increases required to implement the social spending promises Putin made in the first part of his address (www.kommersant.ru/doc/4220699?from=other_read#id1847803). Other reports have emerged claiming that Medvedev resigned the premiership in protest to Putin’s GosSovet proposal which replaced in a previous draft of Putin’s constitutional reform plan a proposal to create a vice presidency, which would have been taken by Medvedev (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2572095-echo.html). If this is true, then it means Putin was willing to sacrifice his political partnership – one, albeit, that was becoming more of a burden given Medvedev’s unpopularity – for preserving his plan to empower the GosSovet. The GosSovet’s importance was underscored by Putin speaking at the first session of the 75-member constitutional working group, noting that this issue was “a most important component” of its work (www.ng.ru/politics/2020-01-16/1_7770_main.html). The GosSovet’s importance to Putin suggests the salience of the as yet unclear GosSovet scenario.

A scenario in which Putin returns to the White House as a newly empowered PM could be bolstered by his taking simultaneously the chairmanship of the ‘constitutionalized’ GosSoviet, perhaps with enhanced powers such as a main center for drafting legislation and reviewing candidacies for top posts. The particulars of Putin’s promotion of the GosSovet was left a mystery; when they emerge they should tell us much about Putin’s future plans. At this point, all that can be said about it is that the idea of its reform may have been a ‘last minute’ improvisation perhaps forced by Medvedev’s resignation in opposition to the proposed constitutional reforms.

The Security Council Scenario

The Asian model could also be pursued by Putin moving from the presidency to the chairmanship of the Security Council (after an amendment), as Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev did last year. Another option would be to add an amendment designating the PM as the first deputy head of the Security Council (Medvedev will not be deputy head) and investing in that position special functions, including chairing the council’s sessions when the president delegates that to him. At present, the president not only chairs the Security Council but appoints its membership, which serves him. Or more boldly, in line with the Asian or Kazakhstani model, constitutional amendments could give the Security Council greater autonomy from the presidency and secure a special place for Putin as the ‘national leader’ and former president by dint of his “historical role”: the Security Council chairmanship for life (http://adilet.zan.kz/rus/docs/Z1800000178). In October, Putin signed a decree amending the ‘Statute on the Security Council of the Russian Federation’ that repealed its Article 27, which stipulated that Russia’s PA supports the Security Council’s activity (compare www.zakonrf.info/ukaz-prezident-rf-530-28102019/ with www.zakonprost.ru/content/base/part/486124). Could this have been the beginning of the Security Council’s reform and autonomization? In sum, there are a series of configurations that Putin is likely leaving open as he gauges the reaction of the elite and society to his constitutional reform proposals.

Presidential Potentials

Any non-presidential scenario for Putin will make who becomes his successor in the Kremlin a pivotal piece in the puzzle. Sobyanin, Shoigu, and Volodin are the most likely Putin-backed Kremlin presidential candidates, with Shoigu being the most popular nationally, Sobyanin popular in the all important capitol, and Volodin possessing both legislative and executive branch experience, having served not just as Duma speaker since 2016 but as First Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration (PA) for more than a decade, from 2011 to 2016. The problem with all of these obvious presidential contenders is none is a member of the intelligence services or the St. Petersburg inner clan, which Putin has traditional relied on in his cadre policy. However, in recent years he has been moving away from that cadre policy as there are no younger officials he can draw on from those groups. Indeed, aside from perhaps Kudrin and dark horse Dmitrii Kozak, both St. Petersburgers, there is no one from within these cohorts in term of status within striking range of contending for Putin’s backing as the Kremlin’s presidential candidate. Therefore, Putin has increasingly been going outside these cohorts for appointees, for example, in selecting Vaino as PA head, Volodin as Duma head, and now Mishustin as PM. Mishustin’s debt to Putin and lack of a power base could make him Putin’s choice as the Kremlin’s presidential candidate. Compared to the top candidates and other dark horses already long in top posts, Mishustin lacks a strong patronage network and the authority to withstand those of Putin, which he will still have as resources even if he is no longer president.  

Risks and Opportunites

The timing of these constitutional changes coincides with other major political events in Russia that together create a confluence of potentially high risk of political destabilization. In particular, the plan to hold a referendum, perhaps as early as May, would expand the electoral cycle. Putin’s Federal Assembly address specifically encouraged a broad discussion – which could turn into a debate if not a brawl – of what constitutional changes should be made by expressing his “confidence that public organizations, parties, regions, the legal community, and the country’s citizens will speak out with their ideas. The broadest public discussion is necessary.” In effect, Putin’s initiative means that the federal election cycle begins now – instead of early next year with the September 2021 Duma election campaign – and will last until 2024. This will entail constant political mobilization, especially in the capitol and St. Petersburg, for a four-year period on a background of lackadaisical economic growth and Putin’s declining popularity. Moreover, Putin’s fate and the possibility that he might choose to return to the PM’s seat will raise the stakes of the Duma elections to an all-time high. This is risky as political mobilization can easily morph into hyper-polarization within society even during shorter, more routine election periods that we all know – Putin not least well among us – have been the spark of political instability and color revolutions across the former Soviet Union and in other post-communist states which the Kremlin so dreads.

Moreover, by replacing the government Putin could be sparking increased elite infighting, which together with disagreements over the issues of constitutional change and Putin’s future role could produce a regime split. Although on the ‘left’, regime liberals are sure to back Putin’s proposals, hardliners on the ‘right’, in the siloviki particularly, will be opposed to Putin’s democratization scheme. However, irreconcilable liberals in society will assert it is nothing but a scam or an effort to strengthen dictatorship (www.ng.ru/politics/2020-01-16/1_7770_opposition.html), putting pressure on system liberals to defect. Should Putin appoint the liberal Kudrin at some point, most likely after the 2012 Duma elections, hardliners in both the state and society and communists in the now more powerful Duma and in society will radicalize to one extent or another. Should things get out of hand, siloviki hardliners will begin sabotaging or countering reform and may begin to contemplate a coup.

On the other hand, Putin’s semi-democratizing reforms will keep system liberals like Kudrin on board the ship of state, preventing a regime split and the development of an even more hardliner-dominated regime ruling group. Some regime liberals were already issuing forth signals of discontent with the creeping harshening of the regime. Putin appears to have sensed that he was losing the system liberals and other moderate liberals who while more radical than the regime liberals were willing to cooperate or at least interact with the state and its agents. This past year saw several signals that Putin could not have failed to miss. In August, long-time Putin ally, RosTekh chairman Chemezov expressed dissatisfaction with the crackdown on demonstrators in Moscow and elsewhere (www.rbc.ru/politics/19/08/2019/5d5a4ba89a794795cedd9bbf). Similarly, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, making his first public appearance in a year and a half after being sanctioned by the US, told the Far East Economic Forum that the judicial system and the lack of independence of the banking system, stymied by Central Bank controls, harm the business climate in Russia. He noted that the Russian banking system consisted of nothing else but the Central Bank and branches of the same and that the judicial system is “a sufficiently closed elite group, which not only inadequately assesses what is going on in the economy but issues inadequate decisions” (www.vedomosti.ru/business/articles/2019/09/05/810552-u-nas-pravovoi-sistemi-vef). Other moderate liberals expressed open dissatisfaction with state of affairs. For example, 28 of 50 members of the Presidential Council on Human Rights issued an open letter condemning arrests connected with the Moscow demonstrations and other human rights problems (http://president-sovet.ru/members/blogs/post/3890/?fbclid=IwAR1vhwWV-4f0qAO4-clhJjjeY8mbNJD2DK5f04NUAwX-38yspO1LdzSuxtw).

Similarly, just as protests after the December 2011 Duma elections nudged the Kremlin to institute major electoral reforms in early 2012, so too do Putin’s liberal constitutional proposals follow this past summer’s hot street protests.

Should Putin or a successor be able to cement an alliance with system liberals and contain regime hardliners from organizing a coup or otherwise undermining reforms, there is the potential for a regime transformation in the direction of democracy either by a transition imposed by the state leadership from above or in partnership with moderate elements within the democratic wing of the societal opposition under a transition pact of one sort or another. But these potential outcomes move us way ahead of matters as they stand today, and a real regime transformation is unlikely to be led by Putin himself. On the other hand, its should not be forgotten that Medvedev undertook a considerable ‘thaw’ as president when he was at least to some extent still under the control of then PM and former president Putin. If those who believed that Medvedev was a puppet and placeholder and nothing but are correct, then the Medvedev’s thaw, including the significant electoral reforms of early 2012, go to Putin’s credit at least as much as to Medvedev’s. On the other hand, upon returning to the Kremlin in May 2012, Putin began to roll back several, though not all of Medvedev’s reforms (see Gordon M. Hahn, “The Russian Federation in 2012: From ‘Thaw’ and ‘Reset’ to ‘Freeze’,” Asian Survey, 53, 1 (2013): 214-223; Gordon M. Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0: Towards Non-Revolutionary Regime Transformation in Russia?,” Post-Soviet Affairs, 28, 4 (October-December 2012): 472-515, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2747/1060-586X.28.4.472#.VNIAL53F-uw; Gordon M. Hahn, “Putin’s Return and the Thaw’s Fate,” Russia – Other Points of View, 14 August 2012, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2012/08/putins-return-and-the-thaws-fate.html; Gordon M. Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0 and the Moscow Spring,” Fair Observer, 11 May 2012, http://www.fairobserver.com/article/perestroika-20-and-moscow-spring; Gordon M. Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0 Continues: Russia’s December Thaw and the Return of Politics,” Russia – Other Points of View, 2 January 2012, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2012/01/perestroika-20-continues-russias-december-thaw-and-the-return-of-politics.html; Gordon M. Hahn, “1991 and 2011: Russia’s Second Revolutionary Wave Has Arrived,” Russia – Other Points of View, 16 December 2011, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2011/12/1991-and-2011-the-second-russian-revolutions-second-wave-begins.html; Gordon M. Hahn, “The Thaw at the Polls – Tandem’s Liberalization Policy Rocks the Vote,” Russia – Other Points of View, 8 December 2011, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2011/12/the-thaw-at-the-polls-tandems-liberalization-policy-rocks-the-vote.html; and Gordon M. Hahn “Assessing Medvedev’s Presidential Legacy,” Russia – Other Points of View, 4 December 2011, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2011/12/assessing-medvedevs-presidential-legacy.html. All this underscores my two-decades’ long assertion that Putin is not an ideological opponent of democracy or the democratic world. He is a practical soft authoritarian, who will democratize when he perceives it as benefitting himself and the country and authoritarianize when he perceives it as beneficial.

Straight ahead is how all this plays out as well as what final decisions Putin makes as to the system’s design and his own future role in it. Whatever the outcome, with a referendum on constitutional changes set for April or May, 2020 will prove to be a watershed year in Russia’s often turbulent history. Indeed, the next four years figure to be much more interesting than than appeared they would be a week ago.  


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021). Previously, he has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.


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