NY Dispatches: What we know and what we don’t

The past two weeks have seen seemingly transformative political developments happen at a breathtaking speed in Russia. Vladimir Putin proposed a series of constitutional reforms. In a little more than a week those reforms were spelled out in a draft law and adopted, in the first reading, by the State Duma. Dmitry Medvedev’s government resigned and was replaced by Mikhail Mishustin’s cabinet. Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika was dismissed and replaced by Igor Krasnov, a high-ranking official of the Investigative Committee. On Saturday the announcement of Vladislav Surkov, a flamboyant political technologist, erstwhile curator of domestic politics and overseer of frozen conflicts in Russia’s neighborhood that he was withdrawing from public service, came almost as a sign that Surkov didn’t want to miss out on all the action. With so much happening it might appear as if we now had a better picture of what the following years will bring in Russian politics. Actually, the changes have brought at least as many ‘knowns’ as they did ‘unknowns’.

What do we know?

We know that the amendments will not create a parliamentary system. As Putin himself stressed in an interview last week, Russia will remain a “strong presidential” republic. Putin’s successor will be able to control, through appointments, security agencies, top courts as well as the prosecution, he or she will be able to dismiss the government and convene the State Council, the yet-obscure body, which many have regarded as Putin’s personal exit plan and thus expected to gain a status placing it above – or next to – the presidency. Intra-elite conflicts might come to the Duma, but neither the speaker nor the prime minister will have an authority comparable to the president’s, at least under the current form of the amendments.

The new government’s function also seems to be clearer. Mikhail Mishustin’s core team appears to be one of administrators trusted with executing large-scale projects effectively, as opposed to Dmitry Medvedev’s “whipping boy” government of mostly political proteges. Two of the new deputy prime ministers, former Moscow deputy mayor Marat Khusnullin and former presidential adviser Andrey Belousov appear to have this kind of experience. Khusnullin, a rising star from the impressively expanding network of Tatarstan’s president Rustam Minnikhanov, oversaw several projects in Moscow’s gigantic revamp of the past decade. Belousov, essentially a dirigiste who will be second in charge in the government, came up with the current concept of Putin’s “National Projects”, and, famously, the idea of a windfall tax on large corporations, which did not succeed. Others, like Dmitry Chernyshenko and Alexei Overchuk have either worked under Mishustin or known him as friends. The apparent focus on the better implementation of the National Projects does, in a way, limit the government’s possible political trajectory, but it can improve is longevity, given that the National Projects are planned to be completed in 2024, beyond the horizon of the next Duma election, whenever it will be held.

It also seems certain that the reshuffle came with an opportunity to cut loose certain “toxic” people who have exhausted their usefulness, couldn’t evolve with the changing circumstances or become liabilities. Often, I would argue, it makes little sense to try reading more into these dismissals and resignations. Medvedev himself was a special case as a former president and there are still debates on whether his placement in the Security Council was a promotion or a demotion. Through the new minister of justice Konstantin Chuychenko Medvedev also seems to have preserved an anchor in the government. But Chaika’s appointment to serve as Putin’s plenipotentiary in the Northern Caucasian Federal District is clearly a demotion, as are the dismissals of former minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky and former deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko. The “resignation” of Vladislav Surkov who oversaw domestic politics in the late 2000s as a deputy head of the Presidential Administration and has “curated” the frozen conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Eastern Ukraine, is also most likely a sign that Surkov’s usefulness has expired. In recent months, the architect of concepts like “sovereign democracy” and “non-linear warfare” appears to have been sidelined in Ukraine: the oligarch-turned-nationalist Petro Poroshenko who was an essential element of Surkov’s strategy lost the 2019 presidential election, while Dmitry Kozak, a deputy prime minister and Putin associate was praised for his role in strengthening the role of the pro-Russian Socialist Party in Moldova via political manoeuvring. Kozak is rumoured to have been assigned the Ukraine portfolio. (What that will mean in practice remains to be seen, but it is remarkable that Kozak has one less rival in both countries. Another of Putin’s point-men in Moldova was the demoted Chaika whose son is in business with the brother of Moldovan president Igor Dodon.) If Surkov’s goal with his resignation really is to force Putin to make a strategic choice in Ukraine, as some claim, his odds might not be the best. In any case I wouldn’t write Surkov down completely, especially given his relations with the Union of Donbas Volunteers, a kind of private army.

What do we not know?

The constitutional amendments, as adopted in the first reading, left several important questions unanswered. It is unclear what exactly the Duma’s role will be in electing the government, given that the president will preserve the right to pick a candidate for prime minister and will obtain the right to dismiss the head of the government without dismissing the entire cabinet. According to the new rules set out in the constitutional amendments, the Duma will “approve” the president’s pick, which speaker Vyacheslav Volodin says will increase the legislature’s powers, but it is unclear how. It is also unclear how the “unified system of power” will affect Russia’s battered regional and municipal governments. The language of the amendments certainly suggest more centralization (which contributed to a significant crisis of responsibility and a near-miss debt crisis in recent years), but some suggest that the State Council receiving stronger powers will actually empower governors.

Mind you, the amendments also fail to answer the question of what the State Council and its president will be able to do. Notably, the Council is supposed to set the “main directions” of domestic, foreign, social and economic policy and in the future its head will not be the president ex officio, strongly suggesting that Putin will, as many say, keep occupying this position in the future. However, according to the constitutional amendments the structure and the powers of the Council will be dealt with in a separate law.

In short, the amendments and changes seem to have answered some questions but created a lot of new ones. Will Mishustin’s government expire in 2021 and will the next Duma elect a more “political” cabinet? Will the Duma play a stronger role in electing the new government at all? Will the new configuration allow for more elite competition within the parliament? What insurances will Putin have after he (as it seems very likely) has left the presidency? When will this happen? And to what extent will the State Council weigh on policymaking in the future?

This, let me repeat, is partly the point. And we shouldn’t forget that Putin will have roughly four years to test-drive the new system, see the reactions of the political and business elite and suggest further safeguards, if needed.

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