by Gordon M. Hahn
Most of the analysis — including my own — of Putin’s proposed changes to the constitutional were perceived almost exclusively through the lens of Putin’s ‘2024 problem.’ Although Putin’s proposed amendments seem to reveal Putin will not attempt to extend his hold on the presidency in 2024, it is possible the main driver behind the proposals was not to address ‘2024’ so much as to prepare for its crucial prelude: the 2012 Duma elections. In this view, another wave of changes can be expected after the constitutional amendments are implemented or after the 2021 Duma elections. Moreover, the proposed amendments are significantly less game-changing than originally advertised. As yet, they portend an insignificant liberalization, less important than that of President Dmitrii Medvedev’s ‘thaw’ or small ‘perestroika 2.0′ in winter-spring 2011-2012, not to mention Mikhail Gorbachev’s transformational perestroika. However, as I noted in previous pieces on the proposed amendments, the changes being implementd now may be but the first stage of a more elaborate process, one in which Putin intends to keep his options open, depending on the political environment as we move through 2021 and closer to 2024. The most likely scenario for a Putin not opting for an ‘early retirement’ is his return to the prime ministership and/or the assumption of the chairmanship of the State Council (Gosudarstvennyi sovet) or GosSovet.
It is clear Putin will leave the presidency. Before the text of the draft bill was published on the Duma’s website, I wrote: “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” (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/01/21/putins-perstroika-update/). Now one can be justifiably maligned for such a statement. The draft bill has now been published, and it puts an end to third or fourth terms for ‘one and the same person’ holding the Russian presidency whether consecutively or, as Putin did in 2012-2024, inconsecutively, serving third and fourth terms after an intregnum presidency under Dmitrii Medvedev in 2008-2012. Article 1.6 of the draft law writes the words “in a row” out of the constitution’s Article 81.3 limiting one person from holding the Russian presidency to two terms; period. This means that Putin cannot attempt to repeat the 2008 ‘switch’ and return to the presidency in 2030. It also means that if by some surprise Putin were to back Medvedev for the presidency, the latter could serve only one term, since he has already served one.
Putin needs to shore up the economy for the upcoming federal election cycle that begins next year with the 2021 Duma elections. He has been struggling to get the economy growing more robustly for several years, but the Medvedev government was apparently too stingy and ineffective in its spending to kickstart economic growth. The new Mikhail Mishustin will oversee a pre-election Keynesian spending binge. Putin’s setting a goal for the government of 3 percent annual growth in 2021 is evidence of the larger political goal of getting his ducks in a row before the Duma vote. The better the economy, the easier it will be for the Kremlin party ‘Yedinaya Rossiya’ (United Russia) or YeR to retain its constitutional majority in the Duma.
The strategy now for achieving the interim (pre-2022) goal of more rapid growth is more efficient implementation. This includes implementation of the 12 ‘national projects’ on social spending, infrastructure development, high technology advancement, etc. It also includes social spending programs and measures to support Russian families proposed by Putin in the first part of his January 15th speech to the Federal Assembly in which he proposed changes to the constitution, such as introducing a clause in the constitution on the right to a minimum living wage and adjusting it to inflation.
The tactic for the interim strategy has been to replace the stagnation government of the discredited Medvedev and place it under the chairmanship of Mikhail Mishustin, whose background in digitalizing, modernizing, and streamlining tax payment regime recommended him to his new office. Mishustin’s future in Russian government and politics will depend on his ability to get economic growth up to 3 percent annually by 2021. By that time, in the wake of the Duma elections, Putin will be deciding whom to back as the Kremlin’s candidate for the presidency he must leave, according to the constitution, whether to make more constitutional or other political reforms in connection with his 2024 departure from the presidency, and what office if any he will take after the presidency.
After Putin’s constitution proposals and Cabinet reshuffle, his trust rating got a small 2.6 percent boost from 68.9 percent to 71.5 percent (https://wciom.ru/news/ratings/doverie_politikam_1/). That ‘bump’ will soon dissipate, and Putin will need more visible economic results to avoid allowing the risky ‘tweaking’ of the election results. Recall that the overzealous tweaking of results in Moscow and less so elsewhere in the December 2011 Duma elections sparked protests that forced then President Medvedev and PM Putin to institute important liberalizing reforms of elections, which Putin then rolled back to some extent upon assuming his third presidential term in May 2012.
Given Putin’s departure from the presidency, the key question – besides the outcome of the 2021 Duma elections, now becomes what role Putin will have after 2024, assuming he does not leave the presidency before his term expires. One is the State Council scenario, which I discussed in two previous pieces (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/01/18/report-putins-perestroika/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2020/01/21/putins-perstroika-update/). The section of the draft law on the amendments regarding ‘constitutionalization’ of the GosSovet demonstrates not only the body’s potential scenario for Putin to remain in a state office and thus influence, even control Russian policy for a time after he leaves the presidency. It also suggests the election-driven aspect of Putin’s first steps on the road to 2024 and the possibility for more political reforms after the Duma elections. As I noted in my previous pieces on Putin’s potential ‘perestroika’ (meaning not just reform but unintended consequences, and regime transformation per the Gorbachev era), the GosSovet has been an advisory organ and the explanatory note accompanying the draft law and published first on the Kremlin site, noted that the amendments will give the GosSovet functions that duplicate the president’s as outlined in the constitution’s Articles 80.2 and 80.3. The note described and draft law describe the GosSovet’s functions 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” (https://sozd.duma.gov.ru/bill/885214-7).
The draft law states that the GosSovet’s “status” is “determined by federal law.” Since there is no such federal law, we can expect one to be adopted in the next phase of reforms. The particulars regarding the body’s functions and Putin’s final decision on whether or not chairmanship of the body will be his will be influenced by the course of the reform process, the Duma election, and perhaps other domestic (e.g., domestic economy) and foreign (e.g., war) political factors.
The Security Council and premiership remain very viable scenarios; chairmanship of the Duma and/or the YeR less so, for reasons I discussed in an earlier post (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/01/18/report-putins-perestroika/). The GosSovet chairmanship is more viable than the Security Council in that the former will be authorized to ‘determine’ the main directions of both domestic and foreign affairs and the president is not its chairman, while the latter is led by the president, according to the constitution, and only has influence over foreign policy. Of course, another set of constitutional changes could include one removing the stipulation that the president chairs the Security Council.
As regards the redistribution of power between the Duma and President in the appointment of the Prime Minister (PM) and Cabinet member, the draft law as submitted to the Duma differs markedly from the way Putin originally presented the constitutional amendments to the Federal Assembly on January 15th and to the working groups established to draft the constitutional amendments on January 16th. To the latter he stated: “(I)magine, the Government Chairman is appointed – the President already has no right to set aside this candidacy. And then the Government Chairman goes not to the President with his proposals (for Cabinet membership) but to the parliament, and the parliament for all intents and purposes in final form confirms the deputy heads of the Government Chairman and federal ministers. The President in this case does not have the right to put them aside” (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62592). However, Putin’s draft law on constitutional changes submitted to the Duma would change Article 83 on presidential powers to read: “The President appoints the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation, the candidacy of which is confirmed by the State Duma upon presentation by the President, and dismisses from office the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation” The President also retains the power to dismiss the Cabinet and all other officials touched by the amendments. It is hard to see how this changes anything from the present process as outlined in the constitution as it stands today prior to amendment. The constitutional changes make identical changes to the process for the appointment of deputy PMs and government ministers of the Cabinet and still gives the President the power to dismiss these officials as well. They also create several formalities in relation to the Federal Assembly’s upper house, the Federation Council that do not amount to much of a redistribution of power away from the presidency. The President nominates the heads of the power ministries or organs of coercion, the so-called siloviki (the Defense, Internal Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Emergency Ministers and the FSB and SVR Directors), “after consultations” with the Federation Council. The President “presents” to the Federation Council the President’s nominees to the Constitutional and Supreme Courts and federal Prosecutor-General and appoints “after consultations” with the Federation Council nominees for regional prosecutorial positions (https://sozd.duma.gov.ru/bill/885214-7, pp. 5-7 of the draft law). These new ‘powers’, really roles, for the Federation Council make for an even lesser acquisition of power, when one adds in the amendment that allows the president to appoint ‘presidential representatives’ to the council’s membership in an amount that exceeds no more than 10 percent of the council’s membership, which is comprised otherwise by two representatives for each of Russia’s 85 regions or ‘subjects of the federation” (https://sozd.duma.gov.ru/bill/885214-7, pp. 5-7 of the draft law).
It is hard not to interpret the hype around the supposed liberalization and increase in checks and balances between the branches of government – specifically a transfer of some power from the president to the Dum and Cabinet – as they were presented by Putin before the draft law appeared as pure pre-election hype perhaps envisioned by him and his advisors as a way to keep regime liberals on board and attract voters to the new liberal parties the Kremlin is rumored to be preparing to crate in order to sap votes from more established opposition democrats and create a manageable democratic faction in the Duma. The new “consultations with” and “presentations to” the Federation Council” are consultations that the president can either take into account or ignore. Thus, here the speculation can be reversed from that which I and others made prior to the draft law’s publication. It appears that Putin has actually left presidential powers largely intact, with only the consultations with the Federation Council providing any new authority for a non-presidential body.
The introduction of these changes as part of preparation for next year’s Duma elections could also explain the haste with which the constitutional reforms were apparently drafted by Putin and quickly introduced to the Duma. The former haste is evidenced by mistakes in some of the documents, the apparent violation of procedure in adopting constitutional amendments inherent in introducing them as a package for passage than individually as required by law (http://www.ng.ru/politics/2020-01-22/1_7774_constitution.html), and perhaps the changes in the proposals between the Federal Assembly speech and working group speech, on the one hand, and the text of the draft law on the amendments, on the other. The latter rapidity of the process is reflected in the turnover between announcement and convening the working group (one day) and that between the first working groups session and submission of the draft law to the Duma (one day). Another day or two passed before the Duma passed the bill in its first reading. The second reading was originally scheduled for February 11th but has been moved back to late February or early March.
Putin’s initial claims that there would be a redistribution power among the branches of power away from the presidency to the parliament and the Cabinet and then failing to deliver could backfire on Putin by frustrating and disenchanting even more regime liberals. Some of them will be similarly influenced by the loss of their former, albeit weak, leader, with Medvedev’s resignation from the premiership, and a general strengthening of less market-oriented members of Cabinet. Putin’s passing over once again Auditing Chamber Chairman and Aleksei Kudrin in appointing Mishustin as the new PM only adds further consternation. On the other hand, former Economics Minister Maksim Oreshkin was appointed an advisor in the Presidential Administration (PA). If one considers the PA to be the real center of power, then this disappointed may be less significant. Similarly, the replacement of Yurii Chaika by Konstantin Chichenko at the Justice Ministry is a gain for liberals, with Chuichenko being a moderately liberal jurist and a long-time associate of Medvedev.
Overall then, Putin is likely to get by rather easily, with minimal loss of regime liberal support, as no serious regime split appears to be over the horizon as yet. His ‘sistema’ will remain viable at least until the Duma elections all else being equal. Immediately afterwards the Duma elections, depending on the conduct and outcome of those elections, and especially in the years running up to 2024 more serious tests will surely arise. This is not to say that the regime will suddenly collapse and cannot muddle through or reform. It is to say that the potential for regime splitting, opposition mobilization, and political violence will grow as we approach 2024. It is probably no coincidence that one of the first acts of the Mishustin government was to institute a system of large bonuses for the Russian National Guard and MVD police personnel who deal with crowd control. The Kremlin is clearly motivated by the traditional Russian vigilance against foreign meddling, learned over centuries of Western interference in Russia’s domestic politics, reinforced by recent decades’ color revolutions and revolutionist ideology of the West, and frequently deployed by Russian leaders to shore up government legitimacy. Any further steps by Putin in a second phase of pre-2024 reshuffling will likely be undertaken to address those risks.
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 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.