Putin’s ideas for 2024
Vladimir Putin’s push for constitutional changes is likely a way to stay in power. But will they be enough to convince the society which is growing more discontent with the current stagnation?
Nothing had indicated a pending political earthquake when President Vladimir Putin was set to speak in front of the Federal Assembly (the two combined houses of parliament) on January 15th, just as he had in the years prior. The president again promised social reforms, support for families in order to counteract the demographic problems in the country and initiatives to combat poverty. At the same time he made it clear that the condition for improving the situation of the citizens was a needed change in the constitution.
The same day, his loyal collaborator, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev together with his government, resigned. The Duma quickly confirmed a new prime minister – Mikhail Mishustin – and unanimously accepted the president’s constitutional amendments eight days later, on January 23rd with little debate. It was decided that the citizens will be asked for an opinion in a nationwide vote (scheduled for April). However, it will not be in the form of a referendum, so it will not be invalid if there is a low turnout (the threshold for official referendums is 50 per cent).
Putin had repeated several times during his 20 years in power that he would never change the constitution, ratified in December 1993. So, what made the president change his mind? What changes will these amendments introduce, and who will change jobs? Are there any risks involved with this process?
It’s about 2024
Many observers have commented that the Putin’s proposals are aimed at resolving the so-called “2024 issue”. According to current law, Putin’s final term as president ends that year. Yet, in the constitutional amendments, the Kremlin has not decided to remove these limits most likely because such a move would be largely condemned by society. On the one hand it would enable Putin to stay in office until the end of his life, but on the other it would discourage people from voting. The wording in the constitution the president can serve up to two consecutive terms was removed. It would mean that even if Putin uses the mechanism from 2008-2012, when Medvedev was president and he prime minister, he has passed his term limit (a while ago). Moreover, the changes stipulate that only a citizen of the Russian Federation not younger than 35 years of age, with a permanent residence record in the country of not less than 20 years and no dual citizenship or foreign residency permit may be elected president. These restrictions on having dual citizenship will also apply to members of parliament, local administration, members of government, etc.
The moves are primarily connected to the need to calm the mood among the ruling elite and the oligarchs. In authoritarian states, the transfer of power is the most dangerous time for the system. This is a time where infighting is likely, loyalties to colleagues are tested and the leader could end up being betrayed. It is not only the leader that is under threat, but his court, politicians and oligarchs, their contracts and even personal security. This is why Putin had to give a sign that he plans to safeguard the current political system of dependencies in place in Russia. Furthermore, it is a response to calls from society related to the stagnant economy, the difficult social situation and weakening support for the regime. According to the Levada Center, the protest potential in 2020 will remain at 20-25 per cent. The main causes for protest are low pay and social benefits, the closure of medical facilities and budget cuts.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin needs the support of the citizens in the upcoming Duma election in 2021. The United Russia party is losing approval in the polls and many of their members run as “independents” to gain better results. This is also why Putin decided on changes in the government personnel and appointed Mishustin as prime minister – a skilled administrator, technocrat and head of the Federal Tax Service for the last 10 years. Mishustin will be tasked with implementing the ambitious social reforms, including financial support for families (child benefits with free school meals) in order to gain social approval.
The changes in the constitution will create a new relationship between the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of government. Putin is promising improved administration of the country within the boundaries of the so-called unified political system of the state, which includes regional and local administration. This in turn is rooted in the Kremlin’s unfavourable view of local elections. Especially in Moscow, where candidates supported by the authorities reached a narrow majority, with 25 out of 45 mandates in the Duma. The Kremlin has decided on the further centralisation of power and a vertical segregation of obligations. The control over the judiciary is also strengthened. The Federation Council will be able to remove judges of the Constitutional Court or the Supreme Court upon request by the president. Russia’s constitutional reform proposal would remove the word ‘independent’ from a current federal law’s description of the Constitutional Court.
In the new version of the constitution, Putin has promised more competencies for the lower house of the Russian parliament – the Duma. But in reality, the president will appoint the prime minister of the Russian Federation, whose candidacy will be approved by the State Duma on the proposal of the President of the Russian Federation. That means the changes will not affect the key position of the president within the system of governance. The president will retain the ability to remove the prime minister and ministers if he loses trust in them for instance. He will also continue to point out the tasks and priorities for the government.
What can Putin gain?
The president has still not decided on what form of governance will come in 2024. It is most likely that he either decides to head the State Council, become prime minister or take charge of the Security Council, or even Duma. The State Council is made up of governors, high ranking state officials and ministers. It only has an advisory role so far, but its competencies could be expanded. It is aimed at “ensuring the coordinated functioning of public authorities, defining the main scopes of interior and foreign functions and priority areas of socio-economic development”. Because of the collegial style of this body, there is a risk of losing the position as the country’s leader and control over important posts like president and prime minister. A similar risk is connected to the chairmanship of the Federal Security Council. The president is at its helm as of now, but it remains possible to transform this influential body and subordinate it to “chairman” Putin. This position has been given to Vice Chairman Medvedev, most likely to keep an eye on the siloviki.
Another likely outcome is Putin taking over the post of prime minister. This would enable Putin to coordinate the country’s current affairs while remaining leader. If this is a repeat of the scenario from 2008-2012, it could lead to social unrest.
The fourth alternative involves becoming Speaker of the Duma but does not give Putin much influence over state policy, which makes it the least likely. Because of problems in the integration of Russia and Belarus, the idea to become president of the Union State of Belarus and Russia had to be put on hold.
Following the tradition of governance in Russia, a strong leadership and the wish to uphold the presidential system in Russia could provoke a rivalry within the elite. This is why the final alternative assumes he would stay on as president. Putin is acutely aware of the need for changes due to growing social discontent.
Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht
Agnieszka Legucka is a professor at Vistula University in Warsaw and an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). In her work she focuses on the foreign policy of the Russian Federation.