Vladimir Milov

Expert of Free Russia Foundation, Russian opposition politician, publicist, economist and energy expert

Putin is Panicking

Vladimir Milov explains why Russian president started constitutional reforms well before 2024 elections.

On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin did a rather unusual thing. Three years before the formal end of his presidential term, without any obvious motivating circumstances (the situation in the country is complicated, but it is no worse and no better than in recent months), he simultaneously announced the unprecedented restructuring of the power mechanism, and the resignation of the Medvedev government, which, it would seem, has already received an informal status of an eternal supplement to Putin’s presidency. It is important to understand what really happened and why.

First, let’s talk about the announced constitutional changes and the reform of the country’s governance system. We have to acknowledge the failure of theories that predicted power transit, the emergence of some influential successor, or exotic options of transferring power through integration with Belarus (which did not imply that Putin’s dominance would be unconditionally preserved, since Alexander Lukashenko is very popular in Russia, maybe even more than Putin himself). Those who were right (including the author of this article) envisaged that Putin wouldn’t leave, as current control over political institutions allows for any type of constitutional redrawing. The latter is the most probable move to preserve Putin’s actual power. This is the easiest and safest way for the Russian leader, compared to options such as appointing a successor or integrating with Lukashenko. As we can see, this scenario was actually applied.

Putin has every reason not to trust any successor candidates. The current situation is different from 2008 when he transferred formal leverage at the peak of economic success and his popularity. First, Putin understands better than others that the Russian establishment is tired of him, do not trust him, is aware of his negative role as the main deterrent to Russia’s advancement and will try to dump this legacy at the earliest opportunity. Our state officials, for all their negative role in Russia’s present situation, however, have not signed to sit forever in a swamp and would appreciate some kind of movement towards progress. Secondly, Russia can’t get out of the crisis paradigm, and the future is threatened with new risks and shocks. No one is waiting for a quiet progressive development – in this situation, letting go of the reins and experimenting with successors is definitely not typical for Putin. He would prefer to implement control personally, as he used to. And, thirdly, there are no signs of Putin’s desire to give up power, no matter what political scientists and commentators say – these are fantasies and groundless speculations.

A mistake made by commentators in the analysis of Putin’s proposed constitutional changes is an attempt to give them a concrete shape through their own interpretations. In fact, there is nothing definite there. The design voiced by Putin simply says: “I want to have room for maneuver, and I will decide everything myself.” The State Council is to be created with no clear power; the State Duma is to be endowed with expanded authority to influence the formation of the government. But Wednesday’s message to the Federal Assembly does not clarify how exactly this system will look.

One thing is clear: Putin wants to create a new system of checks and balances in order to prevent the loss of his own influence. He sends a clear signal: “I will form this system myself, and I will still think how. And this system will be approved by a completely controlled group of film directors and figure skating champions – in the way I say when I decide.”

The key difference between the system proposed by Putin and the current one is that this system eliminates the “president-prime minister” dichotomy. In Russia, many mistakenly look at the Prime Minister as the person responsible for the “national economy.” This is not the case: the head of government is a constitutional post, it is an analogue to the vice president who automatically assumes the presidency if something happens to the first person (for example, he was forgotten at the cottage in Foros without any connection with the outside world). It is not surprising that in such a design the prime minister is a natural reason of nightmares for the power-hungry president: if someone wants to initiate a palace coup, then he will first try to gain over the prime minister, and then the national leader catches a light form of flu – and here he is, the new acting president. That is why Putin has been holding the absolutely unprofessional Medvedev for so many years. He did not care about Medvedev’s professional qualities, the main thing was that in 2008-2012 he passed a loyalty test, unlike anyone else from Putin’s circle.

Constitutional changes, instead of this simple dichotomy, create a more complex system with more players and more opportunities for behind-the-scenes management. You are no longer dependent on the particular candidate for the prime minister. It is worth underlining once again that nothing has been decided yet, the specific configuration will be discussed, but Putin’s statement is obvious: “I am creating a new system of checks and balances in order to stay in power, I will determine this system and control it.” This is what we now know for sure. All the rest is still unknown, and there’s no sense to discuss them. It remains to be seen.

The next question: why now? It is clear that the adoption of amendments to the Constitution takes time. Yet there is another three years until the end of Putin’s term, and he is used to keeping all secrets behind seven seals until the last moment. His secrecy has its own logic: when you designate your decision too early, you expose it for criticism, and people get tired quickly from specific configurations. When you throw out a new construction three months before the election (as with Putin-2000, Medvedev-2008 or Putin’s return-2011), your rivals are taken by surprise, and Putin’s political strategists, on the contrary, have every chance to take temporary advantage and secure the desired result, while voters still believe you and the scheme is not “rotten.”

A certain answer to this question can be detected by the sudden change of prime minister (which, as many sources in the executive branch confirm, even the members of the government themselves did not suspect). Now there is no point in changing Medvedev – the elections to the State Duma are still a long way off. Given the short memory of voters, the effect of this decision will quickly disappear and will not live up to the Duma’s election campaign. There is no disastrous economic situation either. It is bad, but no worse and no better than it was yesterday or will be tomorrow. A change in the cabinet would make sense if Putin had appointed a decisive prime minister for new reforms, who would change the situation, but the new candidate for the post of head of the cabinet, Mikhail Mishustin, is certainly not the one (more on that below).

What is the meaning of such a decisive action on several fronts at once and so early? By way of exclusion, we come to the only possible explanation—Putin panicked when he saw some new “closed” sociological data, which showed how bad his situation was. And then he decided to hastily give out all the preparations he had: to dismiss Medvedev and promise a new package of social measures for 450 billion rubles, and also to announce constitutional amendments in advance so that if people don’t like them, there was time to cancel them under the pretext that unreasonable artists and ice skaters gave the wrong advice. Frankly, I see no other rational explanation for the fountain of radical measures announced three years before the 2024 election. There is not a trace left of the calm, prudent and expectant Putin of past years; He throws all his cards onto the table at once.

The information background of the previous weeks created by the Kremlin political strategists in preparation for the Duma elections also speaks in favor of the theory of panicking authorities. Everything looks frivolous and resembles real panic: from the decision to create a “party of tanks” (non-political parties of let’s say beer lovers in Russia have never worked) to the rumors about the creation of Shnurov’s and Dudy’s parties without the consent of Shnurov and Dudy themselves. We are waiting for the emissaries to Kim Kardashian with a generous multi-million dollar contract for obtaining Russian citizenship, real estate in Saransk, and proposals to lead the party in the State Duma-2021 elections. What else can you expect from panicking Kremlin technologists who feel that the country is slipping away from their hands and they have nothing but stale ideas from the 90s in their heads?

Paradoxically, another indirect piece of evidence of Putin’s panic is the candidacy of the new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin. What is this man known for? Only one thing: as the head of the tax service, with his iron hand he put the dying economy through the wringer and still constantly boasted of the rapid increase in the tax burden on Russian entrepreneurs and citizens. This looked particularly outrageous in relation to self-employed people. Mishustin just a few weeks ago reported that they had managed to collect taxes of about 3 thousand rubles per person in 2019, presenting it as a huge achievement of the service entrusted to him.

Mikhail Mishustin has been working in the government since the late 90s and is well known in this area. He does not have any skills in terms of growth and development, he is a typical tax controller who really knows how to knock the last out of taxpayers in the form of a levy in favor of the state. This is his only strong professional quality. The fact that Putin nominated such a person for the post of prime minister gives us a clear understanding of the psychological state of the Russian leader. Putin feels insecure, anticipates economic difficulties and possible collapse of his own system. He wants to rely on a person who will provide him with cash in his accounts at any cost – including at the cost of further destruction of the Russian economy. Judging by his message to the Federal Assembly, Putin doesn’t care about the economy, because he still looks at the solution to the problem of low incomes of Russians exclusively through the prism of a fragmented distribution of “gifts” to certain groups of the population. Putin clearly isn’t interested in returning to the topic of full-fledged economic growth and development.

In this regard, Mishustin’s appointment looks like hiding under a fiscal “mommy,” who will protect Putin in difficult times. Сommentators argued over the possible candidates to replace Medvedev as prime minister. It could have been either the decisive statesman like Glazyev or Rogozin, who closes the borders, “invests in industry,” and the statist-chavezist economic model would flourish under him, as it has not blossomed anywhere in the world; or liberal Kudrin who would lure investors with sweet speeches and a reformist appearance without real denationalization of the economy. These were emotionally strong options that gave hope to different groups in society. What hope can be inspired by the appointment of the obedient robotic fiscal inspector, who became famous only for squeezing more from the economy into the treasury than it could give? No, this appointment is not about elections, growth or the future. This appointment is about Putin’s personal confidence that everything will not fail, although it is very likely. Mishustin’s appointment is an event from the field of psychology, but not economics or political technologies.

In any case, everything that happened on Wednesday is rather good news. Putin could come up with something that would really preserve the Russian dictatorship for decades, renew its image, and eliminate at least the most obvious contradictions. Instead, we have 1984, not in the Orwellian sense, but in the sense of the Secretary General of the CPSU Central Committee, Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko, during whose term the last parliamentary elections in the USSR took place, where the CPSU received uncontested 99% of the vote. The key here is not “99%” and not “uncontested”, but “last”. Putin clearly does not understand this. Well, probably, he doesn’t need it – it’s time already. The historical era is coming to an end. The new prime fiscal inspector will finally finish it off. As Gleb Zheglov put it in the film ‘The meeting place cannot be changed‘ “Then so be it.”

This article was originally published in Russian on The Insider

22