NY Dispatches: Putin – president for life?

With today’s constitutional amendment that will set the number of his presidential terms back to zero, Vladimir Putin shocked Russian citizens, Russia-watchers and created even more ambiguity about his post-2024 plans. But this will come at a cost.

What a day. Again.

With the same haste and surprise effect that characterized the introduction and the adoption, in the first instance, of Russia’s constitutional reform bill in January, the State Duma today adopted an amendment to this bill that might very well be one of the most consequential legal provisions in Russia’s post-Soviet history. Four hours passed between the introduction of this amendment, by Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space, now a parliamentary deputy, but apparently still a woman with a mission – and its adoption. And then the Duma adopted the entire bill in the second reading.

The amendment resets the number of Putin’s presidential terms when the constitutional reform enters into force and thus opens the possibility for Putin to run for a fifth term in 2024 and a sixth in 2030 when he will be about to turn 78. While the president stressed that the Constitutional Court would have to confirm the constitutionality of this amendment – and in a democracy questions would almost certainly be raised by the court – it seems impossible that the court would dissent.

Few, if any, saw this coming. I certainly didn’t.

The amendments bear some resemblance to Kazakhstan’s 2007 constitutional reform. That amendment also increased some of the president’s powers, notably as regards the appointment of senators; it changed the rules of appointing governments but de facto left the president in charge; and it removed term limits for the sitting president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev had been in charge for 18 years back then and remained president for 12 years afterwards until implementing a meticulously planned succession plan last year, which nonetheless quickly ended up in a mess. Putin has certainly watched that space.

It is important to stress that while Putin can now theoretically remain president until 2036, the amendment itself does not necessarily mean that he will. One of the president’s main goals with the constitutional reform has always been creating the semblance of momentous changes (primarily for voters) while preserving an overall feeling that actually, nothing will change (primarily for a political elite that is interested in continuity). Another important goal was creating enough ambiguity about his post-2024 plans to avoid becoming a lame duck, or, as I described in a somewhat more macabre manner in 2018, a political corpse akin to Stalin’s cadaver, over which his former allies squabble. Today’s amendment adds to this ambiguity. Putin will still have all the options that the constitutional reform has so far created for him. And he will also be able to remain president, if he wants.

But this comes at a cost.

As Tatiana Stanovaya, an eminent Russian political commentator alluded on her Telegram channel today, the amendment, and especially the way that it was proposed and adopted – hastily and theatrically, making a mockery of parliamentary procedures and in spite of various assurances given by senior figures who participated in the preparation of the reform – feels like the kind of insult to voters as the 2011-12 “castling” was when Putin announced his return to the presidency. This kind of procedural cheating is not only undemocratic; it also flies in the face of the authoritarian proceduralism that Putin is usually keen to uphold. The castling essentially prompted mass protests following the egregiously rigged Duma election in December 2011, which continued until Putin’s inauguration in May 2012. The authorities then conducted a series of political trials and a costly financial charm offensive in Moscow to mitigate the fallout until the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which temporarily put Russian politics out of joint. This time, with a conveniently introduced ban on gatherings numbering more than 5,000 people in Moscow – ostensibly due to the coronavirus epidemic – the authorities probably have less reason to fear similar protests.

Many have suspected that the castling was not a premeditated decision but a consequence of Medvedev “failing a job interview” by mismanaging the crisis in Libya and failing to contain opposition to a privatization scheme. Essentially, Putin came to the realization that a second Medvedev term would dangerously destabilize the country. We do not know if this is true, but there is a chance that today’s decision was born out of similar concerns. Only now it’s not fear of a weak successor but fear of critically weak institutions that might leave the perennially risk-averse Putin with this as the only choice that looks logical, feasible and low-risk. And these weak institutions are mostly his own making.

In September, following regional and local elections I wrote:

“[W]hile the Kremlin had a much tighter grip on these elections than on the ones last year, this did not come without a price. It required farcical administrative tricks against opposition candidates, harsh repression in Moscow and shameless rigging reminiscent of the 2011 Duma election. For the sake of securing a desired outcome, the authorities ended up destroying many elements of the electoral façade that the political system is depending on. This can hardly be a long-term strategy.”

Only it seems like there is nothing else and Vladislav Surkov was wrong. Putinism might not survive without Putin.

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