“Cry for Yeltsin’s Constitution,” “Constitutional Coup,” and “Cynical Deal” were among the headlines in the liberal Russian media in the hours after Putin announced revisions to the Constitution, the dissolution of the government, and the appointment of a new prime minister.
No surprises had been expected in the 26th presidential state of the nation speech to the Federal Assembly on January 15, 2020. Yet the speech, which began with Putin’s traditional discussion of social issues, ended with a far-reaching shake-up of the government.
That is, on the afternoon of January 15, Putin dissolved the government, appointed Dmitry Medvedev (prime minister since 2012) his deputy in the Security Council (de facto vice president), proposed Mikhail Mishustin, former head of the Federal Tax Service, as the new prime minister, and also proposed alterations to the Constitution, most dealing with the redistribution of power among branches of government, requirements for the presidency, and the supremacy of Russian law over international law. In particular, the parliament (the State Duma) would confirm the members of the Cabinet of Ministers (which the president can fire); presidential candidates must have lived 25 years in the country and have no other citizenship; and the president would not be able to serve more than two terms (Putin had already proposed removing the phrase “two times in a row”). Since Putin can no longer serve as president, these changes weaken the presidency and strengthen the new center of power being created for him in the State Council.
The changes to the Constitution are to be ratified by national referendum. A commission to formulate the changes was formed that same evening. Among its members are Senator Andrei Klishas, known for legislation to limit freedom of speech; Zakhar Prilepin, an ultra-patriotic writer who fought in the Donbass; and Senator Alexei Pushkov, host of a Kremlin-friendly television program.
Many independent observers called these unexpected decisions a carefully planned, far-reaching maneuver before the 2024 elections designed for the final construction of an autocratic regime.
One thing is clear: A new stage of the country’s political development has begun.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the founder of the party Yabloko and long-time opposition leader, was highly critical of the president’s proposal:
According to a survey by the independent Levada Center, 43% of Russians are living worse now than in recent years. There is obviously a need for change. The president admitted that people want change. And he proposed making changes in the Constitution. So that no international courts, no international laws could interfere in building an authoritarian state (that is, a sovereign state as Putin imagines it). So that the State Duma (in its present form) would appoint a government that the president can fire at any moment. So that the courts would look independent of everything and everyone, except the president. As for changes, that obviously refers to Medvedev’s move from the government to the Security Council.
The president not only did not try to analyze what had happened in the last year, but did not even mention significant events—and there were quite a few: the police systematically planting drugs on inconvenient people; the impotence of the regime to deal with forest fires and flooding in Siberia; the death of 14 seamen in a fire in a nuclear submarine; a new law under which any citizen of the Russian Federation can be considered a foreign agent; Russia barred from the Olympics for doping; the war in the Donbass, Syria, and now Libya.
It shows that the Russian political and economic system is a danger for the country’s citizens, has lost its effectiveness, and is lagging critically behind world levels.
The constitutional changes have nothing to do with Russia’s main problem and will not improve life for its citizens. They are directed at a completely different goal—guaranteeing the formal transition of power without real changes. These are checks and balances that do not lead to a real separation of powers, instead creating opportunities for manipulations at the top. The mechanism for dismissing judges of the Supreme and Constitutional courts and the special provision that frees us from being subject to international laws, corresponding agreements, and obligations strengthen the existing features of Putin’s authoritarian self-isolating system—the very thing that led to the crisis and extreme ineffectuality of the system.
In his state of the nation address, Putin essentially proposed not just preserving the system but making it even more authoritarian, more closed, and completely ineffectual. That is its main meaning and a summary of the last two decades of Putin.
Andrei Kolesnikov, director of the Russian Domestic Policy and Political Institutions of the Moscow Carnegie Center, believes that the point of these new initiatives is a complex gambit to preserve Vladimir Putin’s personal power. “Never before in Soviet and post-Soviet history has the situation been so complex and so similar to an active Cheka [intelligence] operation,” he said. “Yeltsin’s departure on the eve of January 1, 2000, was effective and unexpected. But what Putin has done—combining constitutional changes with the dissolution of the government—is even more striking.”
As for Putin’s proposal to give the Duma the power to appoint the government as a step toward strengthening parliamentarism—Kolesnikov considers it a mere set-up. He believes that the clarification of the status of the State Council in the overhaul is a way of creating a new center of power—parallel to the government and even the presidential administration. By heading the new center, Vladimir Putin, who is 67, will have the status of “father of the nation” with a formal office in the State Council. Even without the formal status of president, Putin would remain the supreme ruler of Russia.
The dissatisfaction with the socioeconomic situation is great. By remaining president, Putin shares in the responsibility for failures in that sphere. The longer, the greater. There is not that much time left before the 2024 elections. He could lose his charisma and popularity, even while giving social tidbits to mothers and teachers. Wouldn’t it be better to turn the people’s anger in the direction of the new president and prime minister? And also the speakers of the parliament, who in accordance with the proposed reform would share the responsibility for the makeup of the government and therefore for its failures.
Let’s imagine this setup: Putin is head of the State Council, “father of the nation”; Medvedev is president, chosen in early elections after the universal approval on Constitutional changes; and Mr. Technocrat Mikhail Mishustin is the prime minister. The new speaker—it could be Vyacheslav Volodin again—heads the Duma, which was also elected in the by-election.
Medvedev is a figure dependent on Putin and who has shown his loyalty. At the Security Council, he would be Putin’s deputy, which would make him the de facto vice president. That’s a good trampoline for moving in the direction of a new presidential term. Putin is responsible for everything good, Medvedev for everything bad.
Putin appointed someone unexpected as the new prime minister. Mishustin was director of the Federal Tax Service, which is considered one of rare state structures with a cutting-edge mindset brought in by the director, who has a degree in information technology. Now Putin, with the help of his new prime minister, will build a country resembling the tax service: control and accountability, enforcement actions when necessary, plus artificial intelligence.
But much intrigue remains. The composition of the government. Medvedev’s powers. National voting for constitutional overhaul. The most interesting parts are still ahead. One thing is clear: Most likely according to the plan made by the architects of this new intrigue, Putin’s successor will be Putin.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis