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Change The Russian Constitution? Might Be A Good Idea, Says Putin Confidant

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks past an honor guard as he attends a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin walks past an honor guard as he attends a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow.

Last October, it was a senior Russian judge suggesting that the country's 26-year-old constitution should be tweaked -- possibly with an eye toward prolonging President Vladimir Putin's stay in power.

Two months later, it was the speaker of the State Duma, a Putin ally, echoing the same sentiment -- a sentiment he doubled down on again in July.

Now, one of Putin's former KGB colleagues, a fellow St. Petersburg native who heads the powerful state conglomerate Rostec, is weighing in to offer his thoughts on the matter: Might be time to consider amending the constitution.

"It must not be changed fundamentally, of course," Sergei Chemezov told the newspaper RBK in an interview published on September 16. "But life goes on, life changes. In any case, it should be decided collectively, should be submitted to the discussion of the people."

He drew a comparison to the U.S. Constitution, pointing out that it had been amended repeatedly in the past. "Ours isn't as old, so maybe it's possible to make some changes," he was quoted as saying.

For Kremlin watchers, Chemezov's comments were a sign that the discussions in the Kremlin and in Putin's inner circle are gaining new momentum as members of Moscow's elite grapple with a question that, for them and the country, is one of the most momentous since the Soviet collapse: What to do about Putin?

Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of the political consulting firm R.Politik, says that Chemezov's comments reflect some of the thinking going on behind closed doors -- and that it is unusual for someone so close to Putin to raise the issue openly.

"From my point of view it's something very new and strange," says Stanovaya, a longtime analyst of Kremlin activity. "And as we know, Putin's friends usually don't interfere in internal policies, political issues, and they stay away from any political conflict or difficult situation, so it looks really very strange."

Having just marked 20 years since he first ascended the political ladder, Putin has now ruled as Russia's longest-serving leader since Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s, if his stints as prime minister are counted. He remains unrivaled within the country, he resoundingly won reelection last year, and his popularity is still at enviable heights.

But Russians have grown increasingly impatient, as sanctions, isolation, demographics, and corruption drag on the country's long-term economic prospects. His popularity has slipped noticeably since his reelection. Approval ratings for United Russia, the Kremlin-affiliated party that dominates politics nationwide, are worse -- so much so that some candidates try to obscure their affiliation by running as independents.

There's wide agreement among political analysts that Putin in recent years has grown increasingly dependent on an increasingly smaller circle of advisers, allies, and friends.

Some, like Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Chemezov, date back to his days in St. Petersburg and beyond -- the latter served alongside Putin when they were KGB officers in East Germany in the Soviet era. Some, also like Chemezov and presidential Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, come from a KGB background, and are among the group known in Russian as the siloviki. Others, like the Rotenberg brothers, are former judo-sparring partners and St. Petersburg allies, who have parlayed their proximity to Putin into lucrative state contracts.

Those groups have flourished under Putin, and built their own wealth and power bases. For that reason, experts say, it's hard to imagine a democratic transition where Putin simply steps down at the end of 2024 and hands over the reins to a democratically elected successor.

Adding further urgency is the fact that lawmakers in the Duma will run for election in two years. If United Russia loses seats in September 2021, that would make it harder to push through any possible constitutional changes.

"The Kremlin is not really thinking about how they're going to prepare for these elections, whether they should reform United Russia, what to do with the...opposition," Stanovaya says.

"For Putin, everything is fine, he thinks United Russia is a stable party with a good level of support, and even if it faces some decrease of approval, the situation is not critical," she says. "So no need for changes. For the Kremlin, for the presidential administration, it's very hard to talk about reforms when Putin feels like it doesn't need it."

For Chemezov's part, the conglomerate he heads is one of several powerful state-owned corporations that control an increasingly large segment of the economy. Rostec's companies include some of Russia's best-known brands, including arms exporter Rosoboroneksport, Russian Helicopters, truck manufacturer KamAZ, and legendary gunmaker Kalashnikov.

Talking Constitution

The Russian Constitution limits the president to two consecutive terms, but each term was lengthened from four years to six in the late 2000s. So far, Putin has not violated those rules: After two terms in office he switched places with Medvedev from 2008-12, becoming prime minister, then returned to the Kremlin and is now in a fourth term that ends in 2024.

In an article published in the state-run newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta in October 2018, Valery Zorkin, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, floated the proposition that the constitution -- adopted in 1993 under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin -- was ambiguous and outdated.

"Of course, our constitution has shortcomings," Zorkin wrote. "These include the lack of an adequate balance in the system of checks and balances; bias in favor of the executive branch of government; the lack of clarity in the distribution of powers between the president and the government."

Three months later, in comments made directly to Putin during a Kremlin meeting, Vyacheslav Volodin, the head of the lower chamber of parliament, suggested it was time to begin discussing changing the document, possibly in order to water down the powers of the presidency and increase that of parliament.

"There are questions in society," said Volodin, who also served as deputy chief of staff in the presidential administration. "This is the time when we could answer these questions, without in any way threatening the fundamental provisions" of the constitution.

Volodin returned to that question in July in an opinion article published in the official parliamentary newspaper, arguing there was a "lack of a necessary balance between the work of the legislative and executive branches" that must be fixed.

Putin himself has downplayed the possibility of changing the constitution and the idea that he and his allies are considering options that would enable him to stay in power beyond 2024. "At present I don't plan any constitutional reforms," he said after his reelection in March 2018.

Asked specifically about Volodin's earlier comments or what specific constitutional changes he would propose, Chemezov qualified his remarks. "I'm not saying that it ought to be changed. You have to ask Volodin what he had in mind," he said.

Chemezov also did not advocate any specific changes in the constitution and seemed to suggest he does not favor scrapping term limits to let Putin stay on as president past 2024. He said that "since under the constitution he cannot go on leading the country, he could take up some other post."

For Putin to leave the presidency but still retain ultimate power from another post -- head of a beefed-up union with Belarus, for example -- a change in the constitution would probably be required.

Stanovaya says that at this point "no one understands how Putin is going to solve this problem, the 2024 problem." "No one understands how we can change the constitution. There are a lot of projects, a lot of ideas" being discussed in the Kremlin, she says.

'Politburo 2.0'

Chemezov also voiced in the interview veiled criticism of how Moscow and federal authorities were responding to liberal opposition groups who sought to get their candidates on the ballot for the Moscow City Duma elections in September.

After local election authorities blocked the candidates, the groups organized near-weekly protests in Moscow; one was among the largest political demonstrations since 2012. Riot police and National Guard troops violently cracked down on one unauthorized protest on July 27, fueling outrage among liberal groups.

Putin's inner circle and its decision-making process has been dubbed by Russian political analysts as "Politburo 2.0" -- a reference to the most important decision-making body during the Soviet Union.

Chemezov bristled at that comparison.

"Honestly, it always makes me smile. You come up with some hypotheses, some system of communication. What is this 'Politburo 2.0?' As if we get together and then discuss some sort of personnel appointments. I know many of these people, but we never have any special meetings with them," he said.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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