Russian presidents like New Year's surprises and Vladimir Putin is no exception. His proposals to change the constitution and the powerstructure puzzle all analysts in East and West. Window-dressing, shrewdness, securing his political future as and clinging to power, it is all that and more. Our columnist Mark Galeotti points to something else: to leave the position of super-president to someone else is a very dangerous legacy. So maybe trying to diversify power, willingly or un-willingly, might in the end be a step forward for Russian politics.
Putin accepts Medvedev's dismissal (picture Kremlin)
It is easy to be cynical about Vladimir Putin’s plans for constitutional reform, moving powers from the presidency to the prime minister, strengthening the role of parliament and revamping the State Council. And, of course, it would be quite right to: the intention is clearly and purely to create a comfortable and secure position for Putin after 2024. Yet for all that, it is worth bearing in mind that this might also help nudge Russia along the path of democratic development, however little this may be the boss’s intent.
The main intent
Obviously Putin’s underlying intent is to manage the '2024 problem': what to do when his constitutional term is up. Simply changing the constitution to stay in power might risk the kind of public anger that sparked the Bolotnaya protests of 2011-13. More to the point, it locks him into what seems an increasingly loveless marriage with the challenges of economics and domestic politics, from road building and pension reform to agricultural policy and tax rates.
The prospect of shifting to becoming head of a Russia-Belarus Union never seemed much of a runner, not least as wily Lukashenka in Minsk probably thinks that if this job should go to anyone, it ought to be him. Besides, there is no real constituency for this in either country, and the challenges would be massive, not to mention the costs. Belarus has a GDP per capita purchasing power parity of just under $18,000, for example, while Russia’s is more than $25,000, so the likelihood is that this would be – or at least presumed to be – yet another drain on the Russians’ collective purses.
Nor was flat-out retirement a plausible or attractive option for a man who will be 72 in 2024, but shows no sign of looking forward to a comfortable rustication in a dacha outside Moscow, writing his memoirs and doting on grandchildren. Without the protections of the rule of law, which is not wholly absent, but takes second place to political power, Putin could not be sure of his security, or that of those cronies whom he considers ‘his team'. Likewise, for a president who has seemed so committed to building his historical legacy, as the saviour of the nation first from anarchy at home, then from marginalisation and mistreatment abroad, simply surrendering that legacy to another must seem a terrible gamble.
Hence the apparent logic of this new constitutional rebalancing. Make the presidency less powerful, and transfer some of the powers of the Kremlin to the prime minister’s White House, creating two more comparable political figures who can be played off against each other. Create for Putin a brand new position, as chair of a State Council so restructured as to bear little resemblance to the current regional advisory body beyond its name, providing him with a ‘father of the nation’ role protecting his security and giving him the opportunity to intervene to protect his legacy when he feels he must. Meanwhile, all the humdrum responsibilities of day-to-day management of the country can rest with the president and prime minister.
In this respect, one can see Putin not so much as the father of the nation as its grandfather, happy to play with the kids when it suits him, happy to hand them back to the parents when it doesn’t…
The stable legacy
Of course, there are all kinds of outré notions about deeper strategies at work – the essentially opaque nature of the Kremlin and the scramble as various intellectual entrepreneurs try to stake out their own market space almost demands this. That this is part of a deal with the West to negotiate Putin’s personal impunity and a recognition of Crimea in return for his departure from power. That Putin is sick or dying. That – and this is a personal and recurring favourite – this is just a prelude to making Russia a constitutional monarchy again, under Tsar Vladimir (would he be Vladimir V or start a new run with a new dynasty?).
Even for Russia, none of these excitingly conspiratorial notions is likely to have any traction on reality, alas. A rather more plausible reading of the potential second-order implications and intentions came from in twitter thread from Anna Arutunyan, International Crisis Group’s senior Russia analyst. She suggested that he 'he values strong institutions, but he doesn’t trust Russian society to build them' and 'the way towards order, efficiency & institutional rule is through a degree of management incompatible with Western-style democracy'.
This may sound counterfactual given how he presides over an essentially personalised 'adhocracy' but we should remember his formative experiences in East Germany, that most orderly of Soviet satellites, and his frequent expressions of exasperation about the ramshackle aspects of the Russian system and the need for his own intervention. It is one thing to appreciate the freedoms and flexibilities of informal governance when you are the boss, but if you are contemplating something of a retreat from that 'manual control' then you may acquire a new enthusiasm for a twenty-first answer of the wohlgeordnete Polizeistaat or ‘well-ordered police state’ that was the dream of many European authoritarians in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries.
What’s good for the tsar can also sometimes be good for the muzhik [regular guy]. A well-ordered police state may not sound like fun – it isn’t – but it is better for most than kleptocratic informalism, and tends to provide a basis for organic reform over time. It is hard to build law without democracy; it is impossible to build democracy without law. Thus, the priority must always be that ‘dictatorship of the law’ Putin and Medvedev praised, without ever actually building. Maybe, that will now change.
The unintended benefits
There are also a series of benefits for Russians that were almost certainly not part of Putin’s design. It is, after all, surprising not only to see the narrative that this is some kind of ‘constitutional coup’ take such hold in liberal and oppositionist circles. Let’s put aside whether or not the proposal to change the constitution and then ratify it through a public vote can really be called that, although I would suggest that if people want to know what a real constitutional coup looks like, they should contemplate the president shelling his own parliament and then pushing through a revision of the constitution that retrospectively makes it OK, and creating a new and less powerful legislature. As that great ‘democrat’ Boris Yeltsin did in 1993. But even on a pragmatic level, there is much in this move that ought to be welcomed.
First of all, the dilution of hyper-presidentialism and the creation of multiple, formal centres of power – as opposed to the current multiple informal ones – cannot help but be a step forward. Putin has, truth to tell, been a relatively moderate and cautious autocrat. Has he had people killed? Yes. Has he enriched himself and his cronies? Absolutely. Has he rigorously followed the rules of his office and subordinated himself to the judiciary and the legislature? Hardly. But – and this may seem a particularly perverse and even over-indulgent example of the glass being considered half-full – he could very easily have killed more, stolen more, and cared less. The point is that a hyper-presidential position is a very dangerous legacy to leave to someone else who could, heavens forfend, be more murderous and capricious. (I’ve never bought the notion that Ramzan Kadyrov could ever possibly be president, but imagine him in that job.)
More broadly, as Yana Gorokhovskaia has written, anything that makes the Duma more consequential, more of a real parliament, makes its deliberations more significant and its membership more competitive: 'People who want to make a difference will be attracted to institutions that give them that opportunity. Greater competition for votes will incentivise politicians to make more direct appeals to voters'. This may help cull the wholly incompetent place holders and force parties into something that looks a little bit more like real competition, and this, in turn, helps foster real politics.
Russians are not apathetic drones. Rather, seeing no hope or value in conventional politics, they turn their energies elsewhere, into protest politics, or civil society, or good old-fashioned kitchen table discussions, sometimes now held in virtual spaces instead. If they feel that there is value and potential in electoral politics, we know from experiences from Ekaterinburg in 2013 to Moscow in 2019, they will get involved.
Finally, extricating oneself from being the master of a kleptocratic and authoritarian system is always a difficult and dangerous challenge. When the gangster ‘Ded Khasan’ seemed to be trying to do it in 2012-13, he ended up dead from an assassin’s bullet. When Michael Corleone tried it in the film Godfather III, he found that 'just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!' Nicholas II’s abdication brought down the empire. If Putin can manage it, and live a comfortable life, then it is also a powerful and useful example to his successor.
Of course, Putin looks as if he is building himself a role akin to that of Nurzultan Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan, or else Deng Xiaoping in China (whose self-created position of chair of the Central Advisory Commission sounds a lot like the chair of the State Council), or Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. He is looking to cherry pick the roles and powers he wants to keep, and make sure he gets to decide who follows him. (Plus, the proposed new rules limiting the presidency to those with no foreign residence and who have lived an uninterrupted 25 years in Russia would exclude Alexei Navalny.)
But what did anyone expect? That in 2024 Putin would just shrug and walk away? That if he did so, the outcome would be anything less than a vicious political brawl with absolute power as the prize? For Russians, and for the world, some kind of orderly transition, and one which diffuses the power at state, is the best of the truly likely outcomes.
Ekaterina Schulmann, one of the more perceptive and level-headed Russian political scientists, has observed that 'History, including political history, is full of events that were conceived as one thing, and then in the end something else came out of them. It’s quite risky to go out and announce: now we have an era of change. It comes because, indeed, society wants it. But just because you start it, it does not follow that you then completely control it.' From liberal initiatives such as Gorbachev’s perestroika to Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs, to reactions from the 1991 ‘Emergency Committee’ to Alexander III’s 'Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality' backlash, events always acquire their own momentum.
In the Russian media, there was talk of Putin’s ‘January Revolution'. This may sound like hyperbole, as most revolutions are not carried out in the name of the tsar’s security and longevity. For all that, the history books may someday come to agree with this characterisation.