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At this point in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing machinations over a potential fifth and sixth term, it’s tempting to say, “Yeah, whatever.” After all, the general public and even his close confidants may not know for more than three years whether he will seek reelection in 2024.
Instead, though, let’s take a look at where Putin’s most recent remarks leave us, or leave the people who are in the midst of a weeklong vote that seems certain to hand him the option of ruling until 2036, and what they say about the bigger picture – about the state of, um, democracy in Russia.
First, a brief look back at the past 20 years, during which Putin repeatedly suggested that he would not take elaborate steps to extend his time in the Kremlin, and in one case – in 2008, when he steered Dmitry Medvedev into the presidency and became prime minister for four years – took pains to avoid altering the “basic law” without jeopardizing his grip on power.
January And June
Even in January 2020, when he proposed the most sweeping changes in Russia’s post-Soviet constitution since its adoption in 1993, Putin did not call for anything that would let him stay on as president past 2024. That closely choreographed bombshell – a phase that sounds about as awkward as the process looked at the time – was handed to cosmonaut and lawmaker Valentina Tereshkova to drop in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on March 10.
Since that day, it’s been clear -- despite Putin’s declining popularity and the political and economic effects of the coronavirus -- that once the nationwide vote on the constitutional changes is over, Putin will have the option of running for reelection in 2024 and again in 2030.
Putin’s latest remarks on the matter came on June 21, when he said in a state TV documentary that he would not “rule out” running in 2024 but had not yet made up his mind.
If he does not announce a run, he said, “I can tell you from my own experience that in about two years, instead of the regular rhythmic work on many levels of government, you’d have eyes shifting around hunting for possible successors. It’s necessary to work, not look for successors.”
These remarks attracted plenty of attention. But did they really advance anyone’s knowledge on the question of whether Putin will run in 2024?
No, not really.
On the surface, they seemed to: Putin came out with a concrete argument suggesting that his absence from the race could create problems for Russia by setting off a search for a successor that would create tension and drain energy from the crucial task of governance at a time when unity is needed to deal with a list of challenges topped by economic troubles.
But giving a potential reason for running is far short of announcing a run, and for Putin, there’s no downside to deepening the impression that you’re not going anywhere -- unless you count dismay on the part of Russians who want him gone, as he evidently does not.
'Room For Maneuver'
Several analysts said Putin’s main aims in making the comments were to maintain a range of options as 2024 draws closer and – as he all but admitted in his comment about a wild-eyed search for a successor -- to avoid looking like a lame duck.
Analyst and author Anna Arutunyan suggested that jumping to the conclusion that Putin’s remarks mean he has resolved to remain president could be the result of “reading only between the lines.”
“The truth could be a lot closer to his literal words than we assume,” Arutunyan wrote in an article in the Moscow Times.
“There is a certain logic to creating the impression that he has already decided to run for president in 2024 while leaving the option to decide, as and when he pleases, whether he will actually run for president or allow a vetted successor to run for president while he keeps an eye on things from a nominally powerful position,” she wrote.
Mark Galeotti, a writer on Russia and a senior associate fellow at the British-based Royal United Services Institute, said he agreed with Arutunyan’s assessment, retweeting her article and writing that Putin “wants to give himself room for maneuver [and] a sense of stability.”
“It's too soon to pretend we know he's staying to 2036,” Galeotti wrote.
Arutunyan, however, added a caveat, warning that “it remains to be seen…how much more of this kind of stability both the elites and the public are prepared to stomach. After all, there’s nothing so autocratic as smiling away decisions until you finally feel like making them, and manipulating your laws to validate taking your sweet time.”
Putin might argue that he is not manipulating laws, and if he does run again in 2024, he will not be breaking them. But there’s a big difference between stepping out of the presidency and then back in to adhere to constitutional term limits, as he did in 2008-12, and changing the constitution to scrap term limits for yourself while leaving them in place – and, in fact, tightening them – for everyone else.
In many cases, Putin can also claim that he is not going back on his word. For example, in his annual news conference in 2008, he said that he decided on his first day as president that he would never “violate the existing constitution,” and that he considers holding a leadership post “for life, to the grave” to be “absolutely unacceptable.”
Well, technically, he is not violating the existing constitution – only changing it. And holding the presidency until 2036, should Putin do so, does not necessarily mean holding it for life.
But Putin has at times uttered words that it would be hard for him to explain away now, such as when he said his attitude about the idea of a president serving three or more terms was “negative.”
And to critics, at least, it’s evident that he is violating the spirit of his promises and trampling on democracy.
To some, the constitutional change -- and Putin’s stated rationale for giving himself the option of running again in 2024 -- suggest that he is a weak president rather than a strong one: a leader who, despite holding the authority to shape Russia for more than 20 years, has failed to create institutions strong enough to weather a simple transition of power.
“It’s clear that all 206 amendments are [being proposed] for the sake of one thing,” rock musician and protest bard Yury Shevchuk told the Russia-focused news outlet Meduza. “They are aimed at crushing us for good with irremovable power, which will now be justified in the constitution.”
Popular vlogger and Kremlin critic Yury Dud called the ballot “shameful.”
“The only reason for this vote is to give Vladimir Putin the opportunity to remain in power until 2036,” he wrote on Instagram.
And now, both ardent Kremlin opponents and Russians who simply want change now have another cause for concern: the nature of the nationwide vote on amendments to the constitution.
For one thing, even the state is not calling it a referendum, because it does not adhere to Russian law on referendums.
'Just Nod Your Head'
And then there is the timing. The vote had been set for April 22 but was postponed due to the coronavirus. On June 1, Putin announced that it would be held July 1 -- but in fact, voting began nationwide on June 25, making it a weeklong exercise.
The government cited concerns about COVID-19 and crowds on July 1, but opponents brushed off those explanations – citing, among other things, the removal of lockdowns two weeks before the vote and the military parade held the previous day on Red Square after a postponement from its initial May 9 date.
And right off the bat, critics found plenty to criticize.
On the first day of voting, images of what appeared to be polling places set up on outdoor benches, in the trunk of a car, and in the part of Ukraine’s Luhansk region held by Russia-backed separatists deepened suspicions about the credibility of the balloting.
In a tweet, one scholar of Russian politics called the vote “a massive and bizarre fake.”
And a mocking meme playing on official billboards advertising the vote showed a photograph of Putin, 67, altered to make him look like he might look in 2036, along with the satirical slogan “My Country, My Constitution, My Zeroing” – a reference to the amendment that will allow Putin to run for reelection by resetting his term count to zero.
“On July 1,” it said, “just nod your head and keep paying us taxes.”