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Putin’s Constitutional Amendments: Political Balancing in an Increasingly Traditionalist Russian Political Culture, Divided World, and Crisis Century

by Gordon M. Hahn

Contrary to my initial reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reform plans as described in his original announcement to the Federal Assembly in January but consistent with my later reaction as more details emerged and the amendment process began, Putin’s reforms are not a new ‘perestroika‘ in the sense of political and/or economic liberalization. They are a careful balancing act swaying between the demands of the hybrid-sistema he has helped to build in which elements of democracy dot a largely neo-traditionalist landscape shaped by foreign and domestic elements, only some of his own making. There is also a careful balancing act between maintaining Putin’s personalist authority and power and not completely undermining the quasi-democratic institutions of the Russian state apparatus that are being used to legitimize his amendment proposals and continuing personalist rule in Russia. Institutionally, Putin appears SO FAR to be implementing changes that will have little effect on the functioning of the government’s different branches or the state’s soft authoritarian relationship with its quasi-citizens (‘subjizens’). Politically, the changes are meant to effect Russian politics on the eve of the federal election cycle in a world split between a globalist, quasi-nihilist West and more traditionalist East and South. Thus, Putin is offering minor, even superficial pluses to liberals and major gains to statists, nationalists, Eurasianists, communists, socialists, and even social democrats.

In part, Putin’s decision is driven by our crisis century’s globalist Westernizing pressures, resulting communalist conflicts often masked as or intertwined with inter-state competition, and the momentous transition from a unipolar to a multipolar international system. In part, they are driven by the coronavirus and global economic crises. In part, they are driven by Russia’s return to the usually dominant traditionalism in its political culture caused by NATO expansion and Western-backed color revolutions in countries near to, or allied with Russia. In part, they are driven by his belief that he is the only person on the Russian political scene capable of maintaining Russia’s stability and power through this difficult period. However, even if the Russian people accept his undertaking this mission, his age is likely to prevent him from doing so.

Through the process he established after his January 15th proposal to amend the constitution, more amendments have been introduced in the last month to satisfy different political elements in Russian society. Most important is Putin’s and the Duma’s most recent request to the Constitutional Court to rule (again) on the legality of nullifying (obnulirovanie) his previous terms in light of the fact of the constitution’s amendment. The logic is that with a ‘new constitution’ the entire system must be rebooted. Accordingly, the count for Putin as to how many terms under the now strict two-term limit begin anew, with his next possible next term beginning in 2024 being counted as his first– that is should Putin decide to run for the presidency at the end of this, his fourth term and win election. Thus, not even the present term — of which four full years remain — counts. It seems that this is a violation of all legal and political logic. Legally, the Constitutional Court ruled in 1998 that obnulirovanie was constitutional only if an entirely new constitution has been adopted (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/01/21/putins-perstroika-update/ and www.cikrf.ru/law/decree_of_court/pesolut24.html). Politically, it seems no less true for the land’s highest court than for the “legislator” that, as the recent court decision on Putin’s amendments recommends, “can take into account the concrete historical factors of the adoption of a corresponding decision” (https://echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/2606756-echo/, p. 42). Perhaps the court should have taken into account that the present holder of the Russian presidency is already in his fourth term clearly exceeding the soon to be adopted strict two-term limit in the constitution.

Nevertheless, Putin, like a tsar or gensek, is in the Kremlin apparently until death do them part? Or are they? Even having the option to run again, there is nothing at the moment that excludes Putin choosing any of the other destinations [Federation Council member/chairman (which affords immunity), State Council chairman, the prime ministership per 2008, a redesigned chairmanship of the State Council or some combination of some of these] I parsed in recent articles on Putin’s constitutional gambit. Even if he chooses to run and wins, he could leave mid-term or after his ‘first’ term, especially in the event that any luster he derives from a state post could be superseded by a better deal (extrication from power with guarantees of immunity for himself and perhaps some of his closest allies).

On the other hand, power corrupts, and the greater and longer power is possessed, the greater the corruption. Corruption here is defined as ethical and political (overriding desire or preference for power or to preserve one’s own) at least as much as material self-aggrandizement. Russia’s 1993 constitution was a somewhat flawed document that afforded a presidential power-holder considerable executive hegemony through which one, if so inclined, could amass dominance over the other branches of government and through institutional hegemony inside the state apparatus legislate the latter into a position to dominate (if not fully control society — a condition that Putin’s soft authoritarian regime has a long way to go before it is established). Putin has proven unable or unwilling to risk the handover of power to another Russian.

Putin’s reforms are not and do not presage a new ‘perestroika‘ in the sense of governmental, political and/or economic liberalization. However, they could produce a new ‘perestroika‘ in the sense of reforms leading to unintended consequences and political instability. Putin is prepared to remain in the Kremlin until he die, unless that becomes untenable for either domestic or external reasons. Putin had a chance in 2008-2011 to pass the reigns of power fully to then President Dmitrii Medvedev. At that time it would have a relatively easy matter to cut a deal with his partner in the Kremlin tandem for extricating himself from power with guarantees of immunity for himself and perhaps some of his closest allies. The level of disdain for Putin in some Russian circles was not as intense as it is now, and there was a still relatively authoritative, trusted associate he could be the guarantor of such a deal. Together with further liberalization under Medvedev’s first-term thaw, Putin could have been forgiven then some of the excesses of his rule by those in those typically liberal circles. Not now.

Although Russia’s pro-democracy liberals have little to no chance of coming to power any time soon, they are not the issue. There are nationalist, socialist-communist, and radical Eurasianist elements, who should they come to power in some combination, perhaps, would not and likely could not provide a guarantee of immunity for a fully retired Putin. The most likely outcomes for post-Putin Russia in the near- to mid-term appear to be chaos or a thorough dictatorship. In the latter case, the hybrid elements of Putin’s soft authoritarian regime — though it is inching towards the authoritarian median — will be swept away. In the former case, anything and everything is on the table. Increasingly, it is not just Putin that has no way out, but Russia which is also trapped in a slow march to political crisis.

Institutionally, Putin’s recent moves as they stand thus far will have little effect on the functioning of the government’s different branches or on the state’s relationship with society. The regime will remain personalist, with the great nullifier at the helm fresh with the first of two more formally constitutional terms, despite the dubious legality of the amendment process, as I noted in an earlier article (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/03/10/putin-2024-2030/). Putin’s response to the coronavirus scare signaled that the institutional map at the apex of the Russian state apparatus remains pretty much as it has been, with the latent threat of triple even quadruple executive branch redundancy or split power. Thus, President Putin, with his still considerable personalist ‘charismatic authority’ (in the Weberian sense) and powers (institutionalized rational-legal and otherwise), remains in charge over the main organ of institutionalized power–the Presidential Administration, which coordinates the executive branch’s multiple bureaucracies as well as their interaction with the legislative (State Duma and Federation Council) and judicial (Constitutional and Supreme Courts) branches, among all other state institutions. Thus, in order to address the mounting coronavirus crisis, Putin set up three working groups; one each in the executive branch’s other three key bodies: a government working group under the chairmanship of Prime Minister (PM) Mikhail Mishustin; a Security Council group under the chairmanship of former PM Dmitrii Medvedev; and a group under the much discussed of late State Council headed by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. If not for Putin’s decision to ask the Duma and Constitutional Court to nullify his previous presidential terms with the adoption of the new constitutional changes, signaling his apparent intent to run for the presidency again in 2024, despite years of saying he would not take such a step, one would be tempted to see in this arrangement a kind of competition for the position of crown prince. But perhaps that crown can be worn until 2030, or perhaps, as I originally suggested, Putin is still holding his options open and has actually not yet made the final decision to run in 2024; however unlikely that appears right now.

Politically, Putin’s constitutional changes still seem meant to effect Russian politics on the eve of the federal election cycle. The difference now is that whereas before the idea of mid-term Duma elections to be held this coming September rather than in 2021 seemed to be paired with the first wave of constitutional changes — that is, before nullification of Putin’s first four terms as approved rapidly by the Constitutional Court on March 16th. Putin appeared to be weighing all options, except the return to the presidency in 2024 (though it clearly remained an option before it became reality), and the changes were seemingly then part of a plan to effect the Duma vote and prepare for the now apparently not-to-be ‘transition.’ But now that Putin has signaled his likely intention to run in 2024, the mid-term election plan has been abandoned, and the constitutional changes appear at least to some to have been a pretext for broaching nullification, it is better to hold off the vote and let the political temperature raised by the ‘nationwide vote’ on the amendments subside before holding the Duma elections.

Nevertheless, the constitutional changes still affect the political game both for winning the national vote on the amendments but also setting the stage for Duma 2021. In Putin’s standard fashion, the amendments demonstrate his penchant for balancing the country’s various political forces. They offer something to just about every ideological orientation and political tendency in the country, but fewer for liberals and more substantial ones for socialists, statists, and nationalists. For the liberals, some might be satisfied by the apparently significant but actually minimal redistribution of power from the executive branch to the legislative Duma and Federation Council, and liberals are outraged over Putin’s nullification and likely intent to remain in the Kremlin after 2024..

More substantially, socialist and communist oriented Russians clearly will see several of Putin’s proposals as steps in the right (correct) direction. The codification in the constitution guaranteeing a minimum wage at a specifically determined level, maternity payments, indexation of pensions and other social welfare subsidies, along with the numerous social spending initiatives he laid out in his January 15th speech announcing his plan to amend the constitution will satisfy many on the Russian left and undercut many of arguments and criticisms of the KPRF and other leftist parties.

At the same time, social conservatives who populate the nationalist, Eurasianist, and statist sectors of the political spectrum on the ‘right’ are enthused over amendments mentioning of “faith in God handed down to the people by their forebears,” civility and respect for the elderly, marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman. Political traditionalists, such as Russian nationalists, Eurasianists and statists, will back new clauses in the constitution such as those on the ineligibility to hold a slew of public offices if one holds a foreign passport, residency permit or bank account, a requirement of 25 years (instead of 10) of continuous residency in Russia and no previous foreign citizenship to be eligible to run for the presidency, on the supremacy of Russian law over international law and decisions of international organizations, on the banning of the removal of territories from the Russian Federation and on calls for such, on the “historically laid state unity” of the country, on honoring the memory of defenders of the Fatherland, on protecting the historical truth, and preventing interference in Russia’s internals affairs. This is a time-honored strain in Russia’s political and even strategic culture always dominant among traditionalists and sometimes among the population as a whole. Although it became more recessive in the late Gorbachev years and early Yeltsin years, it revived strongly with NATO expansion, the bombing of Serbia, and the rise of color revolutions along Russia’s periphery. It is a culmination of Russia’s resulting alienation from the West that this and several other new clauses being added to the constitution have appeared and will likely be supported by a majority of Russians.

Another example of this alienation is the Constitutional Court’s clearly politically-forced illiberal finding in its decision supporting Putin’s amendments as passed in a law by the Duma for the nationwide vote on April 22nd that Russians’ constitutional right to freedom of speech is not violated by the new amendment that will ban calls for the separation of territory from the Russian Federation (akin to the Ukrainian law banning calls in support of “separatism”). The court justified this ruling by claiming that such a ban was consistent with other clauses already in the constitution banning the creation of organizations calling for secession or separatism (https://echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/2606756-echo/, pp. 13-14).

The signpost of the ongoing return to traditionalism in the current constitutional move is writ large in the tautologically-written amendment reading: “The Russian Federation, united by a thousand year history, preserving the memory of its ancestors, who handed us the ideals of faith in God as well as the continuity of the Russian state’s development, recognizes the historically laid state unity.” (The Russian text: «Российская Федерация, объединенная тысячелетней историей, сохраняя память предков, передавших нам идеалы и веру в бога, а также преемственность развития российского государства, признает исторически сложившееся государственное единство». That the amendment’s text mentions ‘unity’ twice demonstrates clearly the traditionalist revival. Unity is something of an antipode of dissent, which is tolerated within strict limits as a precondition for successful foreign meddling in the country’s internal affairs.

The ongoing revival of traditionalism has its risks. Russian nationalists, Eurasianists and most statists also strongly support a new clause stipulating that the Russian language is state language of the ‘state-forming nation’ of the Russian Federation. Although this is mentioned in the context of the Russian nationality being in a “union” of peoples with equal rights and other new clauses calling for the defense of the multinational culture of the Russian Federation and of the cultures of all of its ethnic groups, this is still a significant step away from post-Soviet Russia’s attempt to build a civic state and towards building an ethnic state and could be used by some jurists and politicians to discriminate against non-Russians. This will certainly create a sense among some ethnic minorities that they are second-class citizens and alienate some among such groups. In any fair vote, this should produce some reduced support for, Putin, the Kremlin, and the amendments in the national republics and autonomies in the upcoming votes. Tatarstan especially but also several other republics (outside the North Caucasus republics, which are under tight control as a consequence of several federal as well as local factors) will be important to watch in these regards. All this said, this declarative addition to the constitution is counterbalanced by three other coexisting clauses (preamble; Article 3, part 1; Article 19, part 2) that affirm the equal rights of all nationalities and members thereof in Russia.

In this way and others, Putin’s constitutional gambit could set in motion a series of political responses that could unsettle rather than strengthen his rule and the stability of the regime and state. This is especially so on the background of the coronavirus and imminent global economic recession. The declarative nature of almost all of the proposed new clauses not touching on institutional reform clearly demonstrate the political purpose behind them.

Perhaps more importantly, the declarative new clauses appealing to nationalists and Eurasianists mark yet another step by an increasingly traditionalist Russia away from Western political culture, itself undergoing its own crises. In many ways this is Russia’s return to itself. She is authoritarian (soft albeit), aspiring to be part of or equal to the West, semi- or ‘conservatively’ Western culturally and socially, and state forms, and with trepidation and resentment towards the West. It is security-driven and vigilant against both internal dissent, foreign threats, and collusion between the two. It appears that excesses of traditionalism in the east and anti-traditionalist nihilism in the West continue to split the world apart in this crisis century.

Putin’s self-assumed mission of seeing Russia through the storm to the future by preserving the past is a formidable task made more formidable by his relatively imminent physical deterioration. Moreover, without some liberalization – at least economic and legal (anti-corruption) – Putin is unlikely to live out his life behind the Kremlin’s walls. With coronavirus and recession, there are simply just too many burdens weighing on his top-heavy system.

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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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