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With Sweeping Constitutional Changes, Analysts Say Putin Eyeing New Role At Russia's Helm

MOSCOW -- When Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly announced a raft of constitutional changes during a speech on January 15, Georgy Satarov had few doubts that the declaration concealed ulterior motives.

A former aide in the 1990s to Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, Satarov was one of the architects of the constitution Russia adopted in 1993. While he conceded that the document was ripe for change, he suspected the ultimate aim of Putin's proposal was to enable him to remain Russia's real arbiter after his final presidential term expires in 2024.

"This is the start of the project of power transition, ahead of time," Satarov said in a telephone interview. "And the changes Putin proposed to the constitution have another goal: to ensure the stability and manageability of that transition."

Replacing Yeltsin

It was a bloody political fight that paved the way for Russia's current constitution to be adopted in 1993. A power struggle between the maverick Yeltsin and a parliament determined to impeach him ended only when the military stormed the parliament building to arrest leaders of the resistance. Some 200 people were killed in the skirmishes that the standoff set in motion.

The document ultimately voted through in a referendum that December enshrined a set of laws and principles inspired, among others, by the French Constitution that professed respect for human rights and democratic values and mandating a limit of two consecutive four-year terms for any future president.

But if the authors aimed at instituting checks and balances in the exercise of power, they would be disappointed.

"The constitution is contradictory," Viktor Sheinis, one of the document's other co-authors, told Meduza. "It allows for an expansion of the powers of the president, of the executive branch, of the legislative and judiciary. We have sort of a 'teeter-totter' where first one and then another side or branch ends up on top."

Putin, who replaced Yeltsin in 2000, dutifully stepped down as president after two consecutive terms in 2008 to be replaced by then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. But before Medvedev vacated the presidency in favor of Putin's return for another two terms in 2012, he amended the constitution to extend presidential terms to six years.

That allowed Putin, who was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018, to remain in power until 2024 and become Russia's longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin.

But it also left open the question of what comes next.

Putin's political future post-2024 has emerged as the key political mystery in Russia since his resumption of the presidency in 2018. Officials soon began hinting at the possibility of amending the constitution again, in comments that tested the waters of public opinion and made clear to many observers that something was afoot.

"Our constitution has shortcomings," Valery Zorkin, the Constitutional Court chairman wrote in October 2018. "They include the lack of an adequate balance in the system of checks and balances, bias in favor of the executive branch, and an unclear distribution of powers between the president and the government."

Putin himself has been vague on the issue, hinting in December that the constitution could be changed to rephrase a clause that states no individual can serve beyond two consecutive presidential terms. The ambivalent comment, uttered during his annual press conference in Moscow, threw Russia watchers into a heated debate about its practical implications.

State-Of-The-Nation Speech

But it wasn’t until his state-of-the-nation address on January 15, usually a predictable summary of the year that had passed and a prognosis of the one to come, that the Russian president appeared to end the speculation. His proposal for constitutional changes -- which will be put to a national vote of some kind before May 1, according to Russian media reports on January 16 -- include bestowing new powers upon Russia's parliament to appoint the country's prime minister and buttressing the role of the State Council, a largely ceremonial body headed by Putin himself.

Mikhail Mishustin was Putin's nominee for prime minister.
Mikhail Mishustin was Putin's nominee for prime minister.

Within hours of that announcement, Medvedev had been replaced as prime minister by technocrat Mikhail Mishustin and appointed to a new role as deputy chairman of the Security Council, another body headed by Putin himself. This appointment prompted speculation that the Security Council could become the new nexus of power after 2024.

"[Putin] wants to be sure that the future president will continue his policies, but he also wants to be able to get involved in decision-making," Tatyana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL. She dismissed the notion, advanced by some, that Putin was eyeing a return to a premiership with newly expanded powers.

Under the proposed changes, she said, "the prime minister will become more dependent on [parliament], and the president will be able to dismiss the prime minister. Putin wouldn't want to expose himself to this risk."

As an elderly statesman who has relinquished the office of president after overseeing Russia's resurgence as an international power broker, she said, "he won't want to get involved in everyday politics."

Instead, Putin may rely on his leadership of a beefed-up State Council, the expanded prerogatives of which are yet to be sketched out. If true, the move would echo the transition engineered in neighboring Kazakhstan by Nursultan Nazarbaev, the strongman president who resigned after nearly 30 years in March but retained leadership of the ruling party and the country's influential Security Council.

"Putin will have to find a successor, and this successor will be given space to work," said Stanovaya. But she added that Putin will want to retain levers of influence over the position.

Medvedev was widely viewed as a placeholder when he replaced Putin in 2008, a protege who wielded little real power. But the two men clashed publicly in 2011 over Russia's decision not to veto a UN resolution on coalition air strikes in Libya, and were riven over other issues. Putin undid many of Medvedev's initiatives after he returned to the presidency.

"To avoid conflicts with the future successor, like Putin had with Medvedev, Putin wants mechanisms that will oblige the future president to agree major decisions with him," Stanovaya said. Using leadership of an enhanced State Council or Security Council could be the answer.

Satarov, who at 72 stays involved in politics as president of an independent anti-corruption watchdog in Moscow, admitted that the 1993 constitution suffers from "birth trauma" and could be improved. But he's wary of the ways its loopholes could be exploited for political gain.

"There is an imbalance of power [written into the constitution], but it shouldn't be changed the way Putin suggested," he said. "That has nothing to do with any natural or logical political idea. It has to do with a concrete political project."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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