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Putin’s Perestroika? UPDATE

by Gordon M. Hahn

Russian President Vladimir Putin has submitted an as yet unpublished bill of amendments to the State Duma (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62617). The “explanatory note” published on the president’s site (http://kremlin.ru/supplement/5473), which describes the bill of amendments contained in the legislative bill, leaves more questions open than Putin’s original announcement of amendments in his address to both houses of the Federal Assembly (FA) and other top officials on January 15th (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/01/18/report-putins-perestroika/). The element of de-authoritarianization (some democratization) in the plan appears less robust but still a factor in terms of formal institutions and more checks and balances. The amendment process itself will be less open-ended than Putin suggested it would be in his FA speech. In addition, it appears fewer powers will be transferred to the FA’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, and the independence of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts remains weak. Thus, soft authoritarianism is likely to remain the best characterization of the system as long as Putin is the top player, unless he is pressed to democratize further from above and/or below.

The explanatory note does not mention any change to Article 81.3 whatsoever. It will be recalled that in his Federal assembly speech Putin introduced discussion of proposed amendments by noting he was not opposed to amending that article – though did not mention precisely in what way he envisioned amending it. He also said that he did not think it was of major importance. All this increases my suspicion that Putin may not be planning to leave the Presidency. One reason is the suddenness of his submission to the unpublished of amendments. Putin established a 75-member commission to draft the amendments, but the commission met one day, with its second session set for Tuesday (January 21). But the bill was submitted to the Duma around 4pm on January 20th. What role did the commission play in drafting the changes in reality? One cannot be maligned for thinking possible the sudden insertion or already placed in the text of the bill a change to 81.3 stipulating a three-term presidency. If it is true that Putin is tired, especially of dealing with the more ‘tedious’ socio-economic issues, then there would be logic in the proposed amendments’ transfer of power to the Duma and PM, leaving them responsible for domestic policy, while leaving national security, foreign and defense policy in the president’s hands, since the constitution outs those firmly in the president’s hands, with his control over the appointment of the siloviki and law enforcement ministries and departments and his chairmanship of the Security Council. On the other hand, Putin may have decided to leave 81.3 as it is, unless there is a clamor for amending it one way or another. Three days after his FA speech, Putin rejected removing term limits on the presidency in a discussion with veterans of the Great Patriotic War and the blockade of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), in which one veteran called for unlimited terms for someone in the presidency (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62609).

The note describes the amendments contained in the bill sent to the Duma as follows. The Duma proposes a candidate for prime minister (PM) and candidates for his deputies and the heads of each of the government’s ministries to the President rather than the other way around now. Like Putin’s FA speech, the note does not describe what happens if the president rejects the Duma’s proposed candidate. At present, the Duma rejects the President’s nominee(s) thrice, then the latter can prorogue the Duma and call elections of a new Duma. The amendments still would seem to leave untouched the president’s power to fire the PM and the entire government, also unmentioned in the note as in the FA speech.

The note reiterates the FA speech’s proposals regarding the requirement that the president conduct “consultations” with the FA’s upper chamber when appointing the siloviki (military and intelligence departments and law enforcement heads), including regional prosecutors; the Council of the Federation approving any proposal by the president to remove of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts’ members; placing Russian law above international law; and limitations on those with dual citizenship or foreign residency permits from holding public office and banning them such persons from running for president. There is also a requirement of a 25-year continuous residency in Russia to be eligible to occupy the president’s office (http://kremlin.ru/supplement/5473).

A change from the FA speech in the note is that a general description of the reformed role for the State Council (Gossudarstvennyi sovet) or GS is provided but with a new wrinkle. The note describes the GS’s function as “guaranteeing the coordinated functioning and interaction of the organs of state power of the Russian Federation and determining the basic directions of internal and foreign policy of the Russian Federation and the priority aims of socio-economic development” (http://kremlin.ru/supplement/5473). These functions duplicate the functions of the president, as described in Articles 80.2 and 80.3 of the constitution. This suggests that the GS will share these functions with the president, and the note states the GS is formed by the president. Yet it is unclear whether the president will chair the GS. This increases the viability of Putin taking a non-presidential option ala Deng Xiaoping or Nursultan Nazarbaev on the basis of the GS, but hardly clinches it. The Security Council offers a similar option, if the president is written out of its chairmanship in the constitution, something that has still not been proposed. Another twist changed from the FA speech is that instead of codifying the GS in the constitution, the note mentions a law to exact this institutional change.

As in his FA speech, the note stipulates a national “vote” (golosovanie) on these proposed constitutional amendments. Thus, so far neither Putin nor any other Russian official has described the vote as a referendum. This suggests that something other than a referendum, no less a binding one will be used to legitimize the changes. Putin may intend to repeat the scenario that played out in Yekaterinburg, where public protests broke out last year in opposition to the construction of a new Russian Orthodox church on a central square in the city. Putin stepped in to resolve the intensifying dispute by proposing a public opinion poll be conducted as a kind of referendum to resolve the issue. This approach was adopted by the federal authorities, and the ROC lost the in the poll, and the construction plan was cancelled (https://gordonhahn.com/2019/06/07/lessons-from-yekaterinburg/).

Thus, the clarified picture appears as follows: the system will be presidential-parliamentary with the caveat that the president is still the most powerful player. Putin can overcome this after leaving the presidency to remain the top dog by combining one or more of the following posts where constitutional (e.g., combining the Duma chairmanship and government premiership would be unconstitutional): PM, GS Chairman, Duma chairmanship, and/or Kremlin party ‘Yedinaya Rossiya’ (United Russia) chairman. But Putin has yet to definitively say whether or not he is leaving the presidency or politics.

Some have suggested that Putin may be seeking to amend the constitution and then argue that the counting of two consecutive presidential terms begins under the new constitution and not from 2012. This would mean he could serve two more terms up until 2036. However, this argument is unlikely to fly, since Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled in 1998 that even the adoption of an entirely new constitution as occurred in 1993 in the midst of Boris Yeltsin’s first presidential term — let alone an amended or revised one — cannot bring along with it such a presidential term reset (www.cikrf.ru/law/decree_of_court/pesolut24.html). So this is unlikely to be his plan. Moreover, he is unlikely to undertake any step, probably including a last-minute insertion of an additional constitutional term into Article 83, that would strike the Russian public as legal ‘khitrost’. Any such khitrost’ is not very amenable to Russian culture and is likely to be met with a sense of betrayal and increased unpopularity if not resistance to Putin. The easiest way to remain is to amend the Article 83 to increase the limit to three terms in a row instead of two. It cannot be excluded that opening up the constitutional nationwide discussion is intended to spark a discussion of precisely just such a change as could have occurred when the St. Petersburg veteran proposed such in a very public meeting, as noted above.

The fact that Putin has already submitted to the Duma what is clearly his version of the bill of constitutional amendments clearly runs counter to his professed call for others, including political parties and citizens, to submit their proposals as part of a nationwide discussion of amendments. However, the process still potentially opens up the possibility, intentionally or unintentionally, of a broad discussion. Indeed, the pro-democracy party ‘Yabloko’ has already called for a discussion and drafting of its own constitutional amendments, which would surely be more liberal than those being proposed by Putin. The possibility also remains that an unintended consequence of Putin’s constitutional moves could mobilize various groups, including the pro-democratic opposition, leading to a destabilization of the system much as CPSU CC General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms led to unintended consequences. Thus, Putin may still have opened up a Pandora’s Box he will find difficult to close.

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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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