by Gordon M. Hahn
On 10 March 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin left the door open for the ‘obnulirovanie‘ (starting from zero the count) of the number of terms the ‘current president’ (Putin) will legally be considered to have served — while keeping the new two-term limit (without the qualification ‘in a row) — after his constitutional amendments are approved in all likelihood on April 22nd and the ‘national vote’ or quasi referendum to be held on that day. In his 10 March speech to the Duma, Putin supported this interpretation of the constitution under the stipulation that it must be approved by the Constitutional Court as being constitutional. This means that the high court will now need to rule on this by early April or so. More importantly, if the court finds that said interpretation is constitutional and the April 22 ‘national vote’ approves the package of constitutional amendments, then Putin will be able to run for another term in 2024 and ‘if’ elected his 2024-2030 term would count as his first of two allowed. Thus, Putin could be Russia’s president until 2036 (see the last few minutes of his speech to the Duma today here: https://echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/2602844-echo/).
As I noted in my previous posts on Putin’s proposed constitutional amendments broached back on January, a turn of events remained possible since either this was the plan all along or he was leaving himself maneuvering room to make a final decision after floating the trial balloon of constitutional amendments (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/01/18/report-putins-perestroika/). At the same time, I did not expect that Putin would attempt obnulirovanie. It seemed 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). This means he will be asking the court to reverse its previous decision and allow obnulirovanie in a case involving much less justification; one in which not an entirely new constitution but a merely amended and revised one is being designated as the reason for said obnulirovanie. This comes on a background in which the constitutional changes are being proposed to the Russian public in a ‘national vote’ as a package of tens of amendments and changes, which far exceeds the number of constitutional changes Russian law allows to be considered in a package. The failure to observe these legal ‘niceties’ gives Putin’s would-be perestroika the veneer of a constitutional coup d’etat, if you will.
Putin signaled that perhaps his plan had crystallized when he stated at a public meeting that he would not head the State Council and presumably any other non-presidential post because that would create an unstable situation of dual power, a very loaded, symbolic term in Russian political culture inherited from the early 20th century revolutionary situations in 1905 and 1917 (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62953). In the wake of his proposal to codify the State Council in the constitution and give it presidential-like authorities, it was thought and perhaps Putin was considering moving to its chairmanship after he left the presidency (which he could still do in 2030 or 2036), his rejection of the idea or seemingly taking any other post besides the presidency signaled his decision to remain in the Kremlin was already made or about to be made.
It is likely that Putin made his final decision earlier than he expected and that it was informed by the Coronavirus crisis impinging world markets and Russia’s key strategic partner China, the potential of a larger war in Syria, and the general collapse of Russian-Western relations. He still has room to maneuver, as he can always choose not to run in 2024 or 2030. Of course, there is the extremely theoretical possibility Russia’s Constitutional Court will reject Putin’s obnulirovanie. Should it fail to do so, the rule of law and democracy will have been nullified in Putin’s effort to take or at least keep open the option of running in 2024 and perhaps 2030 as well.
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) 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.