Putin’s endgame

Vladimir Putin unveiled a set of sweeping constitutional amendments, Dmitry Medvedev’s government resigned, Russia’s new prime minister is a little-known tax official and Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov is “temporarily incapacitated”. And all of this happened within a couple of hours. It’s not surprising that Russia-watchers’ heads are spinning. There is indeed a lot to unpack, but the most consequential part of Putin’s proposals might not be what everyone seems to be focusing on.

What a whirlwind.

Russia has officially entered its post-2024 transition period today when Vladimir Putin announced, in his address to the Federal Assembly, that he would initiate sweeping changes to Russia’s constitution. In particular, future governments would be responsible to the State Duma, rather than the president who would have to accept the parliament’s nominations to the government. The president – in future limited to two (not necessarily consecutive) terms – would retain control over Russia’s security agencies, but would have to “consult” the Federation Council, the upper house of the parliament before making appointments to these agencies. Putin also envisages a “unified system of public power” from the presidency down to the level of local governments. The State Council, an advisory body may be strengthened as part of this “unified system”, although the proposals do not spell out how exactly.

Shortly after Putin’s announcement prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, in office since 2012, announced the resignation of the government. Medvedev explained that the decision is due to the upcoming constitutional changes, but this is hardly so. Nothing in what Putin proposed would require the government to resign, nor is it likely that – as some media reports suggested – Medvedev was dismissed due to the government’s poor record of implementing Putin’s decrees. The prime minister and erstwhile second cyclist of the “tandemocracy” has seen his former allies lose power in recent years as he himself become a drag on the government due to his corruption affairs, embarrassing public gaffes and the unpopular policies that his cabinet had to implement and defend. Medvedev will become the deputy head of the Security Council, an influential advisory body, dominated by siloviks (officials with a security services background), which has become a key strategy-making body and policy filter. It tells scores about the crisis of political responsibility in Russia that political commentators are still pretty much split on whether this is a promotion or a demotion for Medvedev who will, in this new position, be Putin’s deputy in the Council and will also remain the nominal head of the governing United Russia party.

And we haven’t even talked about the “temporary incapacitation” of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov – also announced today – which will see him handing over his responsibilities to his prime minister temporarily, and which may or may not have to do with Putin’s announcement (given that Kadyrov did this last year too). The timing is at least strange, considering Kadyrov’s strong personal links to Putin and the Federal Security Service’s strong dislike of him. But we’ll save this story for another day.

The bridges of Kaliningrad

Medvedev’s position in the government will be taken over by Mikhail Mishustin, a little-known technocrat who has led Russia’s tax service and whom no doubt many had to google during the day, even though he has registered one significant achievement: he oversaw the modernization of the tax office, which resulted in tax collection going up by almost 40% in the past 5 years in spite of almost zero growth. Mishustin’s appointment evoked memories of another Mikhail: Mikhail Fradkov whose appointment as prime minister in 2004 caused a similar shock among Russia-watchers due to his relative obscurity.

Mishustin’s appointment, however, makes sense. While many expected the next prime minister to be a strong personality from Putin’s entourage – such as Audit Chamber head Alexei Kudrin, almost ten years in the wait (and counting) or the deputy head of the Presidential Administration and former prime minister Sergey Kiriyenko – if the purpose of Putin’s constitutional reform is indeed to strengthen the parliament and the government, it probably makes sense not to appoint a prime minister now who might hold the position post-2021, as it would come with significant risks, both for the process and for the person involved.

A possible scenario would see Mishustin heading the government until the end of 2021 when a newly elected Duma with its expanded powers elects a new, stronger prime minister, subject to a compromise within United Russia and possibly, between different parties, depending on how the party system evolves. Putin would, in this scenario, retain a firm control over security agencies until the situation is ripe for him to step down (either in or shortly before 2024) and possibly take a new position in a strengthened State Council.  

But most importantly, this is only one of the many available scenarios: the changes would also potentially allow Putin to become prime minister, carry on as the head of United Russia, or do something else entirely. All of these options come with their own risks and opportunities. As many have pointed out, the changes put the ongoing debate about Putin’s succession in (or before) 2024 when his fourth term ends, in a new and broader perspective. Sam Greene of King’s College, London remarked that with this step Putin shifted the focus off him and onto the much broader and more complex question of constitutional reform, in which no one’s position is certain, thereby creating maneuvering space for himself, and a lot of uncertainty for everyone else. Most importantly, in neither of the available scenarios would any of Putin’s successors have the same amount of power as he now has – a security guarantee for both the incumbent president and his successor(s).

Strengthening the role of the parliament would also shift power dynamics to the legislature, at least partially. This would be conducive to a kind of succession that is competitive within certain boundaries: these in turn would be marked by Russia’s restrictive electoral laws (which would be made even more restrictive under Putin’s proposal, banning certainly Mikhail Khodorkovsky and possibly Alexei Navalny from running for president) and Putin’s position as the overseer of the security architecture. I first mentioned this “competitive succession” model in the context of a public “debate” between defence minister Sergey Shoigu and Rostec head Sergey Chemezov in October. And it’s not all about the Duma, either. I would also keep an eye on the composition of the Federation Council in the coming years, given that the next president will have to consult it before security appointments. This seems like a formality now, there is probably a good reason why it’s part of the proposal.

Look at my hands

Lastly, it’s also worth to take a step back and look at a part of Putin’s proposals that has nothing to do with his succession but may very well be more consequential than any of the parts that do. The president suggested explicitly guaranteeing the supremacy of the Russian constitution over international law. Firstly, this would mean codifying at the highest level that Russia can pick and choose which decisions of the European Court of Human Rights to implement – something that has been enshrined in secondary legislation since 2015 – an awkward, but entirely predictable reality check for all those who argued last year that the Council of Europe should give in to the Russian government’s blackmail and weaken its own rules to accommodate Russia’s demands because this would somehow benefit human rights defenders.

But it would be much more than this. Such a change would also be a declaration that Russia is not necessarily bound by the decisions of other international courts and that it steps back from the international legal order. Looking at the bigger picture this will be another step towards a world in which institutions created during and shortly after the Cold War unravel; a world in which what states can do is limited only by what other states can do, as Fyodor Lukyanov laid out recently in an excellent interview on Sean Guillory’s podcast. Trump’s America and Xi’s China would certainly be happy with this development.

In short, there is a lot to digest after this eventful day but it is important to keep two things in mind. The first is that while it might seem that we now know a lot, there’s also significantly more things that we do not know – and this is partly the point. The second is that the part that is the most appealing intellectually – a riddle with a dazzling number of variables – may not be the most important or most consequential part of the proposals – and this is, again, partly the point.

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