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The Week In Russia: Options For Putin, Not For The People

An activist from a pro-Kremlin movement holds a placard with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin in front of the State Duma in Moscow on January 23.
An activist from a pro-Kremlin movement holds a placard with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin in front of the State Duma in Moscow on January 23.

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Prime minister, parliament speaker, party chief, head of a supercharged State Council that would set guidelines for Russia’s domestic and foreign policy and goals for the country’s development.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is barred from seeking a fifth term in 2024. But with a raft of constitutional amendments that he is pushing through so fast one observer wondered whether “an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth," Putin has given himself a rich range of options for the future.

The Russian people, not so much.

They will vote on the matter by the end of April, probably -- after the changes have been approved by parliament and signed into law by Putin, apparently, and after they are plugged in a major state-media campaign, presumably.

The popular vote will fall short of the status of a referendum by law, thinning the veneer of legitimacy it gives the most extensive alteration of Russia’s power structure since the constitution was adopted two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

And Russians will be voting on a cat in a bag -- or a pig in a poke, if you prefer, which I don’t. The changes being rushed into law are a framework, a superstructure whose specific content is being hidden from them for now. Perhaps the most concrete way to describe the exercise is as a vote of confidence in Putin, 67, and in whatever he may have in store for the country.

Two years after they handed him another term, prolonging his rule as president or prime minister beyond the 20-year mark, Russians will essentially be voting for Putin again. They will be handing him something close to a blank check, a list of ways to retain power even longer -- should he choose to do so -- without staying on as president.

Putin’s initiative “is about manufacturing maneuverability and keeping options open,” Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, said in a Twitter thread on January 20.

'Confusion, Deception, And Uncertainty'

What it’s not about, clearly, is clarity. Even as he laid out by far the most substantive information about his plans for the future, he left pretty much everyone else in the dark on some of the crucial details -- deliberately, according to Greene and other observers -- whether he has worked them out for himself or not.

“A real whirlwind of a day, but confusion, deception, and uncertainty are all part of this game,” U.S.-based political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra tweeted in the hours after the January 15 state-of-the-nation speech in which he announced the proposed constitutional amendments .

While Putin said in his speech that the presidency would remain strong under his proposals, other things he said placed the focus on a shift of some powers away from the Kremlin and into the hands of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, potentially strengthening the prime minister at the expense of the president, and on plans to give the State Council -- an institution that has no formal power and is not mentioned in the existing constitution -- some actual authority.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (left) and Putin
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (left) and Putin

The State Council would provide for smooth cooperation among various branches of power and determine “the main directions of domestic, foreign, and socio-economic policy.

Shortly after he spoke, Putin replaced Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with Mikhail Mishustin, a little-known tax service chief seen by many as likely to have only a first-act role in the production now under way.

“A possible scenario [would] see Mishustin head the government until late '21 when a new Duma with its expanded powers elects a new, stronger prime minister,” Toth-Czifra wrote in a Twitter thread, adding that Putin would retain “firm control over security agencies until the situation is ripe for him to step down…and possibly take a new position in a strengthened State Council.”

“But most importantly this is only one of the many available scenarios,” he wrote, adding: “All of these options come with their own risks and opportunities.”

Rules For All But Putin?

If expectations raised by Putin’s speech had been borne out, the State Council would have looked like an option providing him with plenty of opportunities and few risks, if any: a newly powerful body whose chief would be above the president, a national leader whose authority might approach that of a tsar.

But when Putin submitted the proposed amendments to parliament, on January 20, the vague wording about the State Council provided no evidence that it would have power over the president. The president would “form” the State Council, whose status would be determined by separate legislation.

That legislation does not yet exist. When it does, it could presumably place the council and its head above the president. But a subsequent remark from Putin suggests that may not happen. On January 22, he used a meeting with students to provide another clue about his intentions, stating that the future president should not have a formal “mentor” during a transition period.

Why not?

Placing an institution above the president would mean “nothing other than diarchy -- an absolutely ruinous situation for a country like Russia,” Putin said.

That strongly suggests that the State Council will not be formally superior to the president -- whose position as set out in the amendments submitted to the Duma also looks stronger than Putin indicated in his state-of-the nation speech, which gave the impression that the prime minister might hold more power than the president.

But it might be wise to take Putin’s warning against diarchy with a spoonful of salt: Remember, he pretty much put such a system in place for four years in 2008, when he moved to the prime minister’s post and steered Medvedev into the Kremlin to avoid violating the limit of two consecutive presidential terms.

Parting Gifts?

Some observers say that the visible evidence so far suggests that Putin may in fact be looking to make his exit.

But another possibility is that the limits that now seem likely to keep the State Council formally subordinate to the president will exist to restrict its leaders in the more distant future, after he is gone. But that -- like the loophole that enabled him to return to the Kremlin in 2012, which will now be removed, limiting a future president to two terms, period -- it will not really apply to Putin.

“One can understand why Putin is afraid to weaken the presidency. He is genuinely convinced, and has said so time and again, that Russia cannot be run without strong presidential power. He is also conscious of his mortality,” Bloomberg Opinion columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote.

“If he creates a system in which the president emeritus, or whatever post he occupies, has more formal powers than the president, the entire system of governance may be destabilized when he’s gone -- and thus open to the destructive influence of what he sees as foreign foes,” Bershidsky wrote.

In the meantime, a more visible and influential State Council might provide Putin with a perch from which he can monitor the system he puts in place -- assuming his plans are not derailed in the next few years by some major upheaval. It could allow him to step in when and to the degree in which he sees fit, using a mix of formal mechanisms and informal clout.

“If he's serious about retaining authority on Russia's fundamental interests, Putin will spend the next 4 years building and populating his informal control mechanisms, which will be far more important than whatever formal authorities the State Council receives,” Robert Person, an international relations professor at the U.S. Military Academy, wrote in a Twitter thread.

If It Ain't Broke

Particularly when it seemed like he was really weakening the presidency and strengthening the Duma, there was a fair amount of talk about how Putin’s changes could lead to a more democratic system: one that would potentially provide for a more active role for the people he professes to do everything in the name of.

Such assessments may gloss over the fact that the existing constitution -- with some exceptions, such as the wording that enabled him to hand off the presidency in 2008 and take it back in 2012 -- arguably provides a flawed but wholly workable framework for democracy, a reliable if not watertight vessel.

Critics say it is Putin who -- in marginalizing independent politicians, muzzling the media, and suppressing civil society over 20 years in power -- has filled that vessel with something else entirely.

And thousands of Russians who have signed a manifesto against the proposed changes say they won’t change anything for the better.

The statement, published by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta on January 24, describes the amendments as a "constitutional coup" aimed at keeping "Putin and his corrupt regime" in power until he dies.

It also suggests that the amendments would continue to have a negative effect even after that, warning that the constitution is far from ideal but that changing it "for immediate political purposes will destroy the last institution that is protecting Russia from the complete usurpation of power."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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