Yana Gorokhovskaia

a political scientist researching civil society in Russia, contributor of The Guardian, The Moscow Times and other outlets

Examining Russia’s constitutional reforms: An interview with Prof. Ben Noble

On January 15, Vladimir Putin surprised domestic and international audiences by announcing plans for significant reforms to the Russian constitution. Rather than settling the debate over Russia’s political development after 2024, the proposed reforms fueled widespread speculation.We asked Dr. Ben Noble, lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, about what the reforms might mean for Russia’s future.

You and Samuel Greene have suggested that the lack of a clear road map for succession provided by the proposed constitutional reforms is part of Putin’s plan to keep himself from becoming a lame duck. Is uncertainty a byproduct of the Kremlin’s strategy or is it, in fact, a crucial part of the Kremlin’s strategy?

Sowing confusion and uncertainty is definitely not the singular strategy. Putin is creating options for what he might do in 2024, while not explicitly stating that these are the possible pathways going forward. He is also trying to stay uncommitted to any one pathway. Uncertainty remains while options are kept open.

Is this a strategy that the Kremlin has chosen willingly or has it adopted this strategy out of necessity? A new Carnegie Moscow/Levada report shows that while 59% of Russian surveyed want “decisive comprehensive change”, 39% cannot name a single politician with a road map for change. It seems as though while public approval of the government and Putin is falling, the political system has prevented the emergence of credible alternatives to Putin. What consequences does this dynamic have for Russia’s political future? 

Has the Kremlin adopted this strategy out of necessity? Yes. It can’t do otherwise. If Putin were to say that he was going to step down from the presidency in 2024, he would become a lame duck. In that case, we would have a really unstable and possibly uncontrollable situation with strategic uncertainty among elites becoming an existential problem for Putin. There could be a scramble to find a successor and to take over the offices of government in a way that does not fit Putin’s particular managerial style – and could put his own security at risk. In that sense, the Kremlin does not have complete control of the situation and has been backed into the place it now finds itself.

Doesn’t the current absence of a clear successor mean that Putin is in a weak position? Isn’t he risking sparking elite infighting that might fracture the system?

There has always been intra-elite conflict. It is almost the modus operandi of Putin’s system, which allows for rudimentary checks and balances to work while Putin remains on top. And I’m not saying that Putin is never going to make clear what will happen next. If, for argument’s sake, he decided to remain president after 2024, the election would have to be called and there would be lead-in time for everyone to prepare. A more likely scenario is that Putin heads up a beefed-up State Council. Elites will gain more certainty when the federal constitutional law specifying the form and function of the State Council is created. At that point, elites might begin to maneuver in a way that is more disciplined. But the Kremlin will make sure to release information about the transition on its terms, which means that it will continue to control the level of uncertainty.

So, you’re not buying into the rumors that they will bring up the timing of the Duma and presidential elections within the next year and a half to establish a successor?

It’s always possible, but it would be incredibly difficult. Let’s take the State Duma elections. The date of the 2016 elections was moved up from December to September. What’s forgotten is that, when these changes were made, Federation Council senators raised this as an issue in the Constitutional Court. And the Court said that moving the date of the elections is not unconstitutional as long as it’s moved by a small amount of time and that these types of changes are not going to happen all the time. In other words, it’s an exceptional situation. If the Kremlin wanted to move the Duma election up to September 2020, that would be deeply problematic in so far as it goes against what the Constitutional Court has already said. Of course, the Kremlin could come up with a way to make sure that the Constitutional Court didn’t get in the way. And that could be one of the reasons for the inclusion of the increased powers of the President for getting rid of Constitutional Court judges included in Putin’s constitutional reform bill. In other words, this might be one way to put pressure on the judiciary, possibly with a view to a situation where the Kremlin would like to move the timing of the parliamentary elections. That’s a point that Nikolai Petrov has made a couple of times: he thinks that the references to the president being able to get rid of Constitutional Court judges might not remain in the bill in its second reading because it’s just being used as a way to exert pressure on the judicial branch while the constitutional reforms are being considered.

Debates raged just a few months ago about whether the Kremlin would get rid of party list proportional representation (PR) in favor of single-member districts (SMD) for elections to the State Duma in order to help United Russia secure a majority. But that doesn’t seem like a compatible strategy with any plan to move up the elections because it would mean those changes need to be made even faster.

In classic Kremlin style, they are thinking of multiple options simultaneously. So it’s perfectly normal for us to hear rumors about elections moving up at the same time as news about United Russia using regional and city dumas as test cases to see what would happen if they got rid of the party list entirely or altered the split in the number of seats filled through party list PR and SMD races. This has been discussed recently regarding the Novosibirsk and Lipetsk city dumas, where United Russia is trying to convince systemic opposition deputies to vote for these changes. Understandably, systemic opposition deputies are hesitant to adopt a system that would give United Russia even more seats. At the moment, the Kremlin is stepping back and thinking of multiple options. They are waiting to see how United Russia does on the 13th of September in regional elections in order to help prepare for federal-level elections.

Is there an outside chance that these constitutional reforms will be treated as a term limit reset and Putin will stay on as president by arguing that the old term limits no longer apply to him?

I’m going to be quite bullish in saying that that’s not going to happen. Pavel Krasheninnikov, in his capacity as the co-chair of the constitutional working group and chairman of the lead committee dealing with Putin’s bill in the State Duma, was asked if a reset was possible and he said that this was not being considered. In so far as Yaroslav Nilov, an LDPR deputy and protégé of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was allowed to ask this question publicly of Krasheninnikov during the reform bill’s first reading on the State Duma floor, and Krasheninnikov was able to provide a firm answer, I think we can be confident that the message has gone out from the Kremlin that a constitutional term limit reset for the presidency will not happen.

It seemed, when they were first announced by Putin, that the reforms could reshape the political system by significantly weakening the office of the president, which was taken as a positive sign for Russia’s political future. But when the written draft came out, it became clear that the reforms would have much less impact on the existing balance of power. What do the reforms really mean for Russia’s super-presidential system?

On balance, the reforms create a stronger presidency. Granted, the presidency will be limited to two terms. But these are six-year terms, so the next president could be in power for twelve years. By focusing on eliminating a possible third or fourth term for the president, we can lose perspective about how long twelve years is, especially given the potential new powers granted to the president with regard to judges. This is not something that is being commented on much because the conventional wisdom is that all judges in Russia are coopted anyway. Telephone justice means that the Kremlin can make its preferences known whenever it wants in key cases. But these new changes would have a chilling effect on the behavior of Constitutional Court judges as well as judges on the Supreme Court, appellate courts, and cassation courts. The fact that we haven’t seen a huge outcry from the judicial community about this makes me think that these changes simply formalize the existing state of affairs.

But I also think that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for our initial optimism following Putin’s speech. Putin said that these would be “drastic changes” that would empower a responsible State Duma and prime minister. We were right to read significance into those words because they are words that Putin doesn’t usually say.

Vladimir Putin in Moscow, 01.18.2014 г. Photo: Pavlo Bednyakov/UNIAN

Putin even had an off-the-cuff moment with the audience where he said that they needed to prepare for all the new responsibility that they would get along with their new powers.

Exactly. Part of it could have been strategic to make sure that the announcement made a big splash. He talked about drastic changes that will deliver a real transfer of power across the branches of government. But then the bill is far less drastic. We are right to feel like hopes were dashed.

It’s also important to note that many of the changes that have been proposed seem to be created for a possible future where we don’t see unity of purpose across the executive and the legislature – that is, when the ‘party of power’ does not have a majority in the State Duma. Take, for example, the proposed “super veto”, where the president will be able to send bills to the Constitutional Court to assess their constitutionality after the president’s initial veto on a bill has been overridden by the State Duma and the Federation Council. This seems to be a mechanism designed to future-proof the constitution to the benefit of the presidency in a situation where the legislature is not controlled by the executive. It’s difficult for us to picture the world that the drafter or drafters of the reforms might be imagining. But this goes back to my previous point that the Kremlin is creating multiple pathways allowing for executive maneuverability in different scenarios.

In a similar vein, Tatiana Stanovaya made a convincing argument that the proposed changes build dispute-resolution mechanisms into the system in order to deal with a possible scenario where the president and legislature or prime minister disagree.

Her broader point about Putin already knowing his successor is a refreshingly clear answer to the question everyone is interested in, but I think no one is really in a position to make that claim with confidence right now. With regard to dispute-resolution mechanisms, lots of disputes are resolved now in the absence of an institutional framework. But I do agree that these reforms are a way of giving the system flexibility in the future in case there is a disagreement across branches of government.

The proposed constitutional changes have so far failed to spark meaningful opposition. Navalny has come out against efforts to defend the constitution and other oppositionists have also largely demurred from staging protests against the reforms. Why is this?

The clearest answer is that Putin promised lots of things that the opposition cannot come out against, like indexing pensions, ensuring the minimum wage remains above subsistence level, increased maternity capital funding, and free hot meals for primary school children. The proposals in the bulk of the speech are things that the majority of Russians would like. That means it’s difficult for the opposition to come out and focus on technical details related to changes to the constitution. The Kremlin played it well to combine all of this together and rely on the knowledge that political reforms are of secondary importance to most people who are primarily interested in their living standards.

So, it seems as though there’s not a natural base of support for protest against the reforms among the public. But it is striking that the opposition is not even trying to organize something. Navalny wasn’t passive on the issue, he came out strongly against any initiative to organize protest. Does he see protests against the constitutional reforms as a losing bet?

I think so. It could also be that they are keeping their powder dry and waiting for a moment when Putin does have to make clear what he will do next. And at that stage, the opposition might use as a framing device something that has been successful in the past: the idea that Putin remaining at the head of the country will prevent much-needed change in Russia. At the moment, that is a difficult message to sell with all the other positive changes announced and without a crystal-clear answer from Putin about what he will do in 2024.

Police at banned massive anti-corruption rally in Moscow. 03.16.2017. Photo: UNIAN

When he was appointed, Mikhail Mishustin was described as a capable technocrat based on his almost ten years of service as the head of the Federal Tax Service. But this week, we’ve gotten a better picture of Mishustin’s background, including his long-established connections to many regime insiders and his savvy ability to navigate political networks. Is he a placeholder PM or could he be a potential successor?

We could debate until the cows come home whether he is a possible successor. He certainly is one of a group of people who could be a successor but this line of thought leads to a guessing game. And that’s not very helpful at the moment.

What is going to be interesting is to see how Mishustin’s cabinet operates in practice. One of the first messages out was that Mishustin is the first prime minister to put his own team together: a younger team forming a homogenous cabinet that has relatively similar policy preferences. But now it seems like something more subtle is going on. There is a system developing with checks and balances that suggests how conflicts might be resolved when they arise. And this is in line with what we learned from the Moscow Times article about Mishustin: he sets up systems and ensures that they run smoothly. For me, it’s going to be interesting to see how policy debates play out with this new team. Under Medvedev, we saw a number of policy conflicts rage for years. Under Mishustin, there may be less policy conflict. I should be able to analyze this possibility with my research on the Duma. If government legislation is passed quicker and with fewer amendments, that would suggest that Mishustin’s cabinet is more harmonious, given my broader argument that lots of what happens in the Duma is driven by intra-executive dynamics.

But there is also a huge question mark about how the relationship between Mishustin and Vyacheslav Volodin will develop. Volodin might not take kindly to Mishustin’s political star rising. I’m going to be looking at policy conflicts between ministries and how the government tries to manage its relationship with Volodin. Under Medvedev, Volodin got really close to openly attacking the prime minister. Volodin is a very ambitious person and criticizing the government allowed him to firm up his base of power and increase his reputation as an important political player. It will be interesting to see what Volodin’s language is like regarding Mishustin and government ministers.

Does this also depend on what role Mishustin decides to play? Medvedev was willing to take a lot of the blame for government inefficiencies and problems with United Russia. I think we don’t know yet if Mishustin is willing to play that kind of role.

I agree. We need to wait. We don’t yet know how Mishustin will handle relationships or how he will act now that he has to operate in the open. He now has new responsibilities in a new environment. At the Federal Tax Service, he could be the technocrat’s technocrat and be positively covered by the Financial Times. Now that he is in a much more public position that has traditionally been used as a whipping boy by the Kremlin and other political actors, it will be fascinating to see how he will react.

In your research on nondemocratic legislatures, you’ve argued against the theory that authoritarian parliaments exist to simply to formalize executive decisions, suggesting instead that nondemocratic legislatures can and do alter legislation. We’re seeing now that the list of constitutional reforms has ballooned to over 100 items and the length of the bill may increase by 50%. Are these additions the result of attempts at policy-making by legislators?  

The most important point to make here is that the Kremlin is not going to lose control of this bill. With other executive bills, there is sometimes a loss of control because the government is a collective actor. So loss of control just means, in practice, a new compromise – some people may be pissed off but some people might have gained something. Putin’s constitutional reform bill is not typical legislation. The Kremlin will maintain control of the working group and agenda setting.

Despite predictions that the text of the bill will increase by 50%, I don’t think we will see a huge conceptual shift from what was included in the bill submitted by Putin. Part of that is technical in that bills aren’t allowed to change conceptually between first and second reading. A more important reason is that if the bill changed radically, Putin would appear weak because his initial suggestions were not authoritative.

I suspect that a lot of these new proposals are being made to score political points. Just Russia is proposing to enshrine the pre-reform pension ages of 55 and 60 for women and men in the constitution. That’s not going to be included. Orthodoxy as a state religion – that’s going nowhere. But we will get much clearer language about the role of the State Duma and how it is involved in appointing and dismissing members of the executive. It makes sense to spell this out more clearly because it was unclear in the original reform bill.

There are additions to Putin’s original reforms that have gained consensus in the working group in the form of changes to the constitution’s preamble. They relate to Russia’s unique cultural heritage, support for fighting efforts to falsify history about Russia’s victor status in the Great Patriotic War, and a reference to Russia’s mature civil society. Andrey Klishas, a co-chair of the constitutional working group, also wanted to add something recognizing family values and saying that a family is formed by a man and a woman. But this seems not to have gained traction.

I also think that the avalanche of amendments will be cited as the reason for delaying the second reading of the bill in the State Duma to late February or early March. However, I think that the actual reason for the delay is the logistical problems that have emerged from trying to include a nation-wide vote in the process. Vague answers by Volodin and Putin to media inquiries about how the vote will happen suggest that there’s not a strategy yet for this.

What is the problem with holding a nation-wide vote? We know from the Crimea example, that the Kremlin can stage a referendum pretty quickly.

The reality of organizing a nation-wide vote and fitting it into the existing timetable and legal process is a headache. There’s a big timing issue for one. In the procedure outlined for passing a law introducing amendments to the constitution, there is no mention of a nation-wide vote. Instead, there is a requirement that at least two thirds of regional assemblies need to approve the initiative before it comes into force, in addition to other requirements. So, Putin can sign the bill and then wait for the assemblies to approve but how do you integrate a nation-wide vote into that procedure?

To be clear: there is no technical need for a nation-wide referendum or vote? The Kremlin has committed itself to a vote as a way to gain legitimacy for the constitutional reforms?

Insofar as the proposed reforms do not relate to chapters 1, 2, and 9 of the constitution, a referendum is not required. A nation-wide vote was proposed, I suspect, for the veneer of legitimacy that the Kremlin thought it would provide. Of course, the Kremlin could engineer a vote result by using administrative resources. But right now, the Kremlin is doing its best to try and make this whole process seem legitimate and democratic.

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