by Gordon M. Hahn
The prospects for a ‘Putin ‘perestroika’ or ‘perestroika 2.0’ resulting from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposals to amend the Russian constitution need to be discussed under a precise definition of what one means by ‘perestroika’. I usually use this term as a reference to substantial political reforms, liberalization, and democratization. However, one can include in such definition economic and/or social reforms. One might also include not just some reform process ‘from above’ but the mobilization of civil society from below intended or unintended by the political leadership making the reforms. The unintended consequences of societal mobilization might include the rise of national identity, nationalism and even ultra-nationalism or democratic opposition as occurred during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. This last aspect of what be regarded as a constituent element of any ‘perestroika’ under Putin or emerging after Putin but sparked by his constitutional changes is important to keep in mind as the constitutional reform process progresses in the next few months and as politics develop with the approach of Putin’s apparent departure from the presidency in 2024.
The potential for societal mobilization is reflected in Russians’ attitude towards his proposed constitutional amendments. According to the Russian sociological survey center VTsIOM, 79 percent of Russian regard his proposals as “important” (https://wciom.ru/index.php?id=236&uid=10146). VTsIOM found that “most of the topics touched upon the presidential address drew a wide response.” However, the most resonant aspects of Putin’s reform proposals were not those related to the political system. The most resonant were: “assistance to families with children; extension of maternity capital program; proposals to develop healthcare; arranging meals for primary school students; additional payments to class teachers; measures aimed to fight poverty and to foster economic development; the priority of the Constitution over international law; banning public officials from having foreign citizenship; and Russian-wide Affordable Internet Project” (www.wciom.com/index.php?id=61&uid=1742). If Putin’s goal is to garner points for the upcoming federal election cycle, then he so far is succeeding, as some 90 percent approved the inclusion of the indexing of social welfare payments, a guaranteed minimum wage, and his other social assistance proposals (https://wciom.ru/index.php?id=236&uid=10146).
On such a background, the plan to hold a referendum or ‘nationwide vote’ (vsenardnoe golosovanie), as Putin keeps referring to it, inevitably will mobilize the population further. The pro-Kremlin party, Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) or YeR, and the pro-Kremlin public association, the United National Front or ONF, will be rallying support for the reforms, especially the social expenditures intended to ‘buy’ votes, and using them to get out the vote of Putin’s traditional constituencies. However, opposition parties are likely to be equally motivated to oppose the reforms and offer their own in order to rally their own voting bases. Indeed, the pro-democracy party Yabloko is already drafting its constitutional amendments and plans to offer them to the population in some way that remains unclear to date as an alternative to Putin’s proposals.
Putin has encouraged the submission of other proposals for amending the constitution. He explicitly invited Russians to do this when he announced his own in the Federal Assembly address. Thus, according to the most recent data from the State Duma, which passed Putin’s constitutional proposals in the first of three scheduled ‘readings,’ the Duma committee examining proposals has received 300 proposals from outside, and its own members have submitted another 170 (www.ng.ru/politics/2020-02-03/1_7784_constitution.html).
The entire process is not only mobilizing society and the opposition on the eve of the federal election process, which begins with the Duma election set for September 2021, but may also raise expectations as to the importance of the reform or of the adption of one or another reform to one or another constituency. Herein lies a danger for Putin and Russia’s political stability. ‘Below,’ in society, pro-democracy opposition groups likely have a low enough set of expectations regarding Putin that they expect little in the way of what they regard as positive results, in particular political liberalization or democratization. However, more radical opposition groups as well as more or less pro-regime elements such as the Russian Orthodox Church or nationalists of one stripe or another might pose a bit of a problem. Some among the latter, ‘conservatives’ or traditionalists less interested or even opposed to democratization, are putting forward proposals of another sort. The idea of including the word ‘God’ in an as yet unclarified way or a declaration to the effect that ‘marriage is an institution binding together a man and a woman’ are being put forward. Should the final amendments exclude these or other proposals coming from groups with expectations their proposals would be included, the result could lead dissent and division.
Similarly, the extent to which the amendments touching on the political system affect the duration of Putin’s tenure in some non-presidential office and thus the tempo and depth of the change inherent in 2024, potentitally weakening the political and business prospects of one clan or another, the debate over systemic changes could provoke a split with the ruling elite. Such a split could revolve around disagreements between those who would prefer Putin stay at least until 2024 and take up a serious office or several offices under a new ‘caretaker’ president and those who would prefer a more rapid departure, perhaps even with mid-term presidential elections and a minimal or no role for Putin under the next president.
Of course, it is possible that Putin intended some sort of political mobilization of civil society during the constitutional reform process. Putin has been making appearances before public groups of ordinary citizens more frequently since he proposed the reforms. That possibility opens up a series of other intriguing potential purposes and plans being entertained by the man in the Kremlin. A good subject for perhaps another article.
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.