Putin Forever?: How the Russian President is planning ahead

Putin WP

On 15 January, a day after the start of the Orthodox New Year, and the end of the long holiday period, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin announced an assortment of constitutional changes, restructuring, and a public vote on the entire package at his address to the Federal Assembly.

He also appointed an unknown technocrat – Mikhail Mishustin, the 53-year old head of the Federal Tax Service – as the new prime minister, replacing Dmitry Medvedev, who has held the post since 2012.

Plotting a life-long mandate

Putin had already conjured up a way of extending his stay beyond the initial two term limit by swapping places with Dmitry Medvedev, who served as placeholder for presidency during 2008-2012 as Putin became prime minister.

Soon after Putin secured his second consecutive term in 2017, it was widely anticipated that he would plot a way of staying in power beyond 2024 at the end of the two-term limit. 

The tinkering of the constitution, and the launching of a cosmetic perestroika without any promise of reforms, reveal a desperation to get business done without taking risks; and also to institutionalise Putinism: the concentration of power in the military-security-intelligence apparatus known as siloviki, connected with organised criminal groups under his life-long rule.

Russia’s constitutional framework does not provide for the procedure to procure the life-long mandate that Xi Jinping has secured from the Chinese Communist Party.

Machinations in the past years to induce Belarus to join the Russian Federation to establish a new ‘Union State’, which ostensibly would be headed by Putin under a new post, broke down in December last year.

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus demanded domestic Russian price for natural gas imports, dilly-dallying the pressures to bring economic and security policies in line with those of the Russian Federation. Showing an uncharacteristic tolerance for protesters in Minsk shouting “First Crimea, next Belarus” and “No annexation!”, he also secured gas supplies from Norway and others suppliers to reduce dependence on Russia.

This left Putin to look at the Kazakhstan scenario to maintain the status quo while creating an appearance of change and restructuring. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who had held office since 1989, resigned in March last year by appointing a handpicked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, while retaining all powers and authority as head of the National Security Council with extensive mandate to appoint the president, prime minister, and members of the cabinet.

Nazarbaev enjoys the constitutional title as Leader of the Nation and privileges as ‘First President’ of Kazakhstan. His daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva, now holds Tokaev’s previous position as chairman of the Senate, the upper house, who will succeed the president in the event of untimely exit. Its current president Tokaev is a technocrat lacking personal influence or power base and is seen as a transitional figure.

Borrowing some of the elements of the Nazarbaev succession, Putin is crafting a new arrangement and reshaping the existing structures to enable him to preserve or even enhance his existing powers, while relieving the responsibility for the economy and day-to-day administration.

Whichever structure he heads, and position that he will eventually assume, will be designed to preside over the existing institutions and to control the president, prime minister and the cabinet, the Duma (lower house), and, of course, the siloviki apparatus.

Is the new prime minister Mishustin being groomed as a successor?

Mishustin’s resume reveals an enthusiasm of digital technology and AI in modernising the taxation service. He is described as a “splendid bureaucrat” and a “technocratic placeholder” whose penchant for hockey has seen him mingling with top officials. He is also an amateur musician and a pianist.

While a number of new faces have appeared in the new cabinet, the most vital ministries – foreign affairs, defence, interior – have been retained by the long-time incumbents. This suggests that no change of direction in Russia’s foreign policy, defence, security, and the control of the siloviki over internal affairs is likely. 

Role for Dmitry Medvedev in the new configuration? 

With a reputation as a playboy who shirks work and has accumulated enormous wealth, Medvedev had few admirers inside or outside of the government.

A video released in 2017 by Alexei Navalny, Putin’s major critic who heads an anti-corruption foundation, documented the palaces, yachts, and vineyards in Russia and abroad acquired by Medvedev during his time in office. The video has hit 34 million views.

Medvedev’s extreme unpopularity, corruption, and incompetence also make him a ‘useful idiot’. He is shielded by Putin, who can use the plentiful kompromat (incriminating evidence) on him to sack or punish if he fails to carry out the orders.

Medvedev is now the deputy chairman of the State Security Council, a position created just a few days ago, apparently to find a role for him. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the State Security Council, is the most prominent hardliner who began his career in Soviet KGB and is on the EU and US list of sanctioned individuals.

Medvedev is a placeholder, who can be rotated to other positions as needed.

The curious emergence of the State Council (gossovet)

Perhaps the most curious development in the proposed package of amendments is the elevated role of the State Council, an obscure structure created in 2000 for “safeguarding coordinated functioning and cooperation of state organs.” It was an inconspicuous consultative body, made up of the heads of Russia’s regions with Putin at its head, which met 1-2 times a year.

The gossovet is to be enshrined in the Constitution and is being beefed up to include the heads of the lower and upper houses of parliament, Putin’s envoys in federal districts, and regional governors.

It will likely emerge as the supreme organ headed by Putin through which he can continue to wield power and influence, without assuming any responsibility for policy issues and failures. The State Council is to be given a constitutional status and being expanded to oversee other security organs, parliament, prime minister and president.

This fast-evolving structure suggests some affinity with the old Soviet politburo and is definitely the space to watch in the coming weeks. 

What constitutional amendments has Putin proposed?

The proposed constitutional amendments promise an apparent shift of power from the presidency to the parliament – the Duma (lower house) and the Federation Council (upper house). The Duma will have a say on confirming the prime minister (who the president will still propose) and approve cabinet members. The Federation Council, the upper chamber, is to be consulted on nominations of defence minister and other security posts. 

The changes restrict the president to two terms in total, instead of two successive terms. They also require the president to have been a resident in Russia for a minimum of 25 years and disqualify those who have held a foreign passport or residency, which eliminates the opponents of Putin now living abroad.

The proposed changes further reduce the powers of the judiciary and proclaim the sovereignty of Russian laws over international ones.

Why the hurry? And a public vote on the constitutional changes?

Putin has promised “the broadest possible public discussion” of the suggested changes and an “all-Russia vote” on an entire package of proposed amendments.

Curiously, the constitutional changes proposed by Putin do not obligate the current government to resign. The amendments do not affect the fundamental chapters of the constitution, and do not require a popular approval. 

The working group appointed by Putin to work on the amendments include a nationalist author who went as a mercenary to fight in Donbas in Ukraine and boasted of killing many, an Olympic gold medallist, and an actor who has starred in several Hollywood films – but no legal experts. The group clearly rubber-stamped the proposed changes which were rushed through the Duma within five days and approved to be put up to a popular vote in the coming weeks.

The avoidance of the word ‘referendum’ suggests that Putin is not willing to risk any possible popular demonstrations and unintended consequences. A referendum would need to be held according to constitutional procedures, will require extensive organisation, presence of election monitors. It will require a large turnout, will need to be seen as legitimate, and will have a binding vote. There is little clarity yet about what a ‘public vote’ will be and how votes are to be counted. There is no such provision in the constitution for holding it.

It is being presented as some form of public opinion survey for testing how far the Russian society will go with his proposed reforms. Finally, citizens are expected to vote on it as one package, rather than on individual components. Putin has added sweeteners such as a promise to increase social spending, increase in pension to compensate for inflation, and presented it as a welfare measure.

Is there a game plan? Is it likely to work?

Putin and cohorts are testing out a range of scenarios and possibilities to plan his next set of moves. It is beyond doubt that institutions are being designed to enable Putin to remain at the helm.

The possible scenarios are:

(i) Putin becoming prime minister with expanded powers and an empowered Duma staffed by the ruling United Russia Party and its various allies;

(ii) Putin becoming the speaker of the Duma with enlarged powers;

(iii) Putin as head of the State Council with significantly enlarged powers and a constitutional status;

(iv) Putin as head of a new structure holding a yet-to-be stitched up position that will allow him to control all other organs.

Some of the proposed changes may be aimed at keeping the public, and even regime insiders guessing. Putin has a reputation for flummoxing his associates and wider public with surprise moves, as he did by swapping positions with Medvedev in 2008 and taking over Crimea in 2014.

Clearly, Putin is not looking to appoint a ‘successor’. He is looking for an appropriate institutional design for himself and his close associates to remain at the helm till the end. He has launched a cosmetic perestroika to create an appearance of reforms while further entrenching Putinism. Nonetheless, by rushing to approve the changes without any meaningful public debate and tinkering with constitutional changes and soliciting informal public approval, Putin and the siloviki will be treading on uncharted territories, encounter blind spots, and face unanticipated consequences given the rising discontent and disillusionment among citizens.

After Stalin, he is the longest-serving leader. Retiring is not an option.

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