On January 15, 2020, President Vladimir Putin delivered his 16th Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.
In his annual address to the lower and upper legislative chamber, Putin announced plans with potentially profound ramifications for the future of Russia’s government. Buried among the usual platitudes of socio-economic situation and calls to accelerate the development of all spheres of public life, was a disclosure of a plan that amounts to a major constitutional reform. The address, for the most part, used a very formal language and was rather stingy on the specifics of that plan. One can only guess how and when these plans divulged by Putin would actually manifest in reality—in the past, his public directives have undergone significant changes during implementation.
One concrete, major and immediate outcome of this plan is the resignation of the long-serving Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev along with the entire government. Following the announcement, Medvedev put out a statement: “…it’s obvious that we, as the government…should provide the president of our country with the opportunity to make all the decisions necessary for this. And in these conditions, I believe that it would be right…” for the government to resign.
Will there be a referendum?
Vladimir Putin has proposed to amend the Russian Constitution through a mechanism of “citizens’ vote.” It is noteworthy that he was careful to avoid using the term “referendum.” The last referendum in the Russian Federation was held in 1993 and since then, the legislation governing the plebiscite procedure has changed dramatically but has never been applied. Moreover, presidential initiatives in Russia do not necessarily require confirmation by a popular vote. It cannot be ruled out that presidential lawyers would be able to create a legal implementation roadmap avoiding a referendum altogether.
In her comments to the media following the address, the Chairman of the Russian Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova said a referendum is unlikely, and hinted that another format would likely be used to approve the proposed amendments.
What this really means: The abolition of the principle of primacy of International Law, the abolition of the independence of local self-government, the abolition of the principle of independence of the judiciary.
The most monumental and unambiguous element of the constitutional reform proposed by Putin is the abolition of the principle of the primacy of International Law (Article 15 of the Constitution). This measure represents the development and final consolidation of the position of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, which was formulated in 2015 and subsequently received its legal confirmation.
The proposed obviating of the principle of independence of judges is the direct subversion of the core tenets of the 1993 Constitution. Until now, there have been no formal legal levers of direct and immediate pressure on judges (although, of course, in no way could the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation be considered independent). With the proposed reforms, the highest judges can be dismissed from their posts on the widest possible grounds.
If implemented, this plan would certainly result in a significant deterioration of the already deplorable situation of human rights in the Russian Federation. Russia would cease to be a legal state even in the most lax definition of the term.
Another proposal sounded by Putin that would also directly affect the everyday life of Russian citizens is to establish the principles of a “unified system of public authority” and effective interaction between state and municipal bodies. Exactly how this system of principles will look in practice is still unclear, but it is strongly hinting at the abolition of the principle of independence of municipal self-government and the violation of the basic provisions of the European Charter of Local Self-Government. Moreover, if the principle of primacy of International Law is abolished, it would not even be necessary to denounce any international legal acts— those would simply become non-applicable or selectively applicable. Putin most likely will create a quasi-legal structure to enable local governments in one form or another to be included in the state power system and incorporated into the power “vertical”.
Considering that the State Council, the body which currently consists largely of governors, will occupy a central place in the newly-declared structure of power, it is not difficult to imagine that at the regional level the power system will also become more centralized, possibly at the expense of municipalities.
The New Vertical
It’s very likely that the power transit scenario announced by Putin today, one way or another, will be fashioned after the transit of power launched in 2019 in Kazakhstan, one of the most successful personality-centered regimes oft the post-Soviet domain.
In his 2019 report “A New Prince: An Undemocratic Transit of Power in the Post-Soviet Space” political analyst Kirill Rogov analyzed the Kazakh transit as follows: “Nazarbayev is ‘splitting’ the presidential power. But unlike other well-known scenarios, he is splitting it not in two (the President and the Prime Minister), but three (the President, the Security Council President, and the Prime Minister) or even four components. The powers of the Senate headed by Nazarbayev’s daughter, for example, include the nomination of the Chairperson of the National Bank, the Prosecutor General, the Chair and Judges of the Supreme Court, and also the Chair of the National Security Committee. Such a design provides him with nearly full control of the state. It looks quite reliable as long as Nazarbayev remains legally capable.”
However, it is important to note that the stated plan regarding the transit of power in Russia will most likely go through the State Council and not the Security Council. Therefore, it is the civilian political elite of the United Russia party and state governors that would constitute its initial supporters base and not security officials (“siloviki”).
Moreover, the shift of the center of gravity to the new Council, the structure of which has not yet been determined (as opposed to a fully-fledged and staffed Security Council) suggests that a variety of loyal players interested in participating in this transit can make a bid to do so (of course, pending a personal approval by Putin himself).
Finally, Putin’s new plan preserves the United Russia as the key pillar of his power. Since for the past few years it has maintained a relatively low profile and even avoided flashing its brand in regional elections so not to lose votes), we are likely to witness a great mobilization of its Duma delegates and the entire party apparatus. This, in turn, will reinvigorate the cadres dynamics within the Russian government, offering new and rapid opportunities for career advancement all the way up to the top position unseen in the recent decade.