Tag Archives: Constitutional Reforms

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

Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

In his speech before the elite of the Russian ruling class earlier this week, Vladimir Putin announced a new constitutional reform, which, in essence, amounts to adopting a new fundamental law. The Kremlin is proposing a new “social contract” to the Russian people that will replace the “Crimean consensus” – new and restored social benefits in exchange for cementing within the Constitution the monopoly of the current ruling class over the country’s governance.

A new “social contract” is a necessity for Putin’s regime. When he first came to power, at the time of the second war in Chechnya and fairly regular and massive terrorist acts in Central Russia, including in Moscow, he proposed a similar deal to the Russian people – exchange of some political liberties for security. Having imposed “order”, Vladimir Putin continued to expand his powers at the expense of other governing institutions, destroying the constitutional order of Russia. Then a second contract was put forward – a promise of satiety and stability in exchange for the remnants of political liberties. This contract was a much tougher sell and resulted in mass protests of 2011-2012. And in 2014, the Kremlin came up with yet another offer: forfeit of even more liberties for the restored sense of Russian greatness through the war on Ukraine and forceful annexation of Crimea.

We have now entered the final stage in this process. The population, seriously impoverished as a result of the prolonged economic decline, which began even before Crimea and was aggravated by international sanctions, is offered an ambitious program of support for the poorest of its members in exchange for a new Constitution, which will enable Vladimir Putin to stay in power after 2024, when he can no longer, under current law, be re-elected another time to the post of the president of Russia.

Is This Really a New Constitution?

In his address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin said that his plan does not envision adoption of a new Constitution. A legal analysis of proposed amendments, however, suggest that it amounts to a fundamental change in Russia’s State system.

His first proposal is self-isolation of Russia from international law — an idea floated by the Russian ruling class for quite a while. This would enable Putin’s regime not to observe international obligations when they contradict Russian legislation. This is a reference to the abolition or amendment of Part 4 of Article 15 of the Constitution, which mentions the primacy of international obligations and agreements assumed by the Russian Federation over its domestic legislation. This change would allow Russia to selectively not comply with decisions of such organizations as the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights and essentially make pointless Russia’s participation in these institutions under the new Constitution.

It should be noted that the article proposed for amendment is part of the so called “protected” part of the fundamental law. In order to rewrite it, it is necessary, under the Constitution, to convene a new Constitutional Assembly. At a minimum, a referendum must be held. Vladimir Putin was clear that he does not intend to do either. Instead, with a Presidential Decree, he has formed a “working group” (not stipulated under any current laws) whose task it is to amend the fundamental law. He has indicated, however, that Russian citizens are to approve his proposals by some kind of universal vote.

It is highly unlikely that proposals will be rejected, since the majority of the Russian population does not understand that it is Russia’s international obligations that most reliably protect many of their rights, including social rights, given the tendencies of the authoritarian regime. In time, most likely such understanding may develop, but it may happen too late —after the amendment of the Constitution. Therefore, the international community must actively seek to explain this now, while such discussions are underway in Russia. Another point to be explained is that such a ballot would have no legal force; and neither would the follow-on amendments introduced through parliament, as they clearly violate the Constitution.

Understandably, the Kremlin is apprehensive about convening a Constitutional assembly, since the laws governing this procedure have not been updated since 1993. There may be an uproar, and most importantly, a delay. On the other hand, a referendum requires a set of rather precise formulations, which would tie Putin’s hands for the real re-writing of the Constitution. Putin is clearly counting on securing a wholesale consent from the people, and not a detailed, article-by-article approval process. Moreover, a national referendum cannot be combined with Federal Parliamentary or Presidential Elections which is exactly what the Kremlin intends to do.

Putin’s decision to disregard overt requirements of the Constitution is nothing new. Since his very first days in power, he has been consistent in eroding Russian Constitutional government institutions and creating parallel institutions and procedures. Some of the early attacks included establishment of federal districts and the institution of presidential representatives, not prescribed in the Constitution. The Russian State today even features law-enforcement bodies that exist outside the Constitutional framework – such as Rosgvardiya (the National Guard). Rosgvariya is controlled by the Presidential Administration, whose powers are described by the fundamental law as “the president forms his administration”.

The Problem of 2024

In addition to rejecting the primacy of International Law, Putin has proposed to strip the remnants of the autonomy of judges at the highest courts. At the president’s demand, the docile executive authority of the upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council (the president can even appoint some of the senators) will, under the new Constitution, dismiss judges from the Supreme and Constitutional Courts (“in connection with a loss of confidence” by the head of government.

Putin has also proposed to renounce compliance with the European Charter on Local Self-Governance, ratified by Russia; and to make municipalities part of government authority, absorbing them as structural sub-divisions of regional state administrations. One of the possible goals of this initiative is to exclude independent political candidates from running in and winning municipal elections.

Likewise, the proposed amendment of the Article on Presidential Elections (which introduces a 25-year limit on candidates and forbids candidates with residences in foreign countries) politically neutralizes powerful opposition figures currently in exile.

Putin has also proposed to remove from the text of the fundamental law the stipulation that prohibits the president from running for elections to this post more than twice “in a row”. Putin himself has already used this clause, having essentially served five terms (four as president and one as prime minister), but he wants to preclude his potential successors from taking advantage of it.

The plan will certainly result in a major re-distribution of powers. The State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russians parliament is now in the process of approving the candidate for prime minister nominated by the president. The Duma also forms the cabinet of ministers, with the exception for the so-called “presidential quota”: the heads of the law-enforcement agencies and
possibly the head of the Foreign Ministry. The new Constitution requires the Duma to do so in consultation with the Federal Assembly, and not appoint them without any discussions as now.

Finally, Putin’s proposal legitimizes a government agency (that already exists parallel to the Constitutional realm) – the State Council. Russia’s governors serve at the State Council and are appointed on a rotation basis. It is not clear what the new State Council would look like, how would it be staffed and by whom, and most importantly, what would be its powers. We can be certain, however, that Vladimir Putin has already thought through those details.

Judging from the people whom the president of Russia has appointed to the “working group” to amend the Constitution, the group is a mere formality. There are practically no lawyers among the members of the group; these are extras in a political show. The real draft for Constitutional reform, has most likely already been written by the presidential administration.

One can speculate on the various motives behind the constitutional amendments. It appears that Putin intends to leave the post but remain in power in some other role. He may choose to run the country from his position at the Security Council (to which he has transferred as his deputy the ex-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who had resigned after the publication of the address). Although it is more likely that he will head a reformed State Council which will likely be assigned some sort of extraordinary powers under the new Constitution. This is an attempt to formulate something like a system of checks and balances which would guarantee Putin, even in the event he leaves the post of the president, the possibility of running the country.

The international community has very few instruments to block this path of Russia’s self-isolation. Bringing the country into international alliances would not have any effect on the internal situation in Russia. Mobilization of the currently apolitical majority of the population dissatisfied over monopolization of power within the country is the biggest hope for stopping these encroachments. It is for this reason that Vladimir Putin, before rolling out his constitutional reform, has offered a long list of new social perks and benefits, including hot meals for school kids subsidized by the federal budget. He is clearly counting that as result, some positive meme like a “Putin breakfast” (or lunch) would be established. But for now, this is a direct trade where the right of the current ruling class to extend its tenture by at least a decade is bought with a hot meal.