Can Putin survive Putinism?
While the World’s attention is driven by the Coronavirus Crisis, we could witness a new power move in the Russian domestic politics. Recently the regime’s most significant political challenge is how to ensure Vladimir Putin’s position in power after 2024. Namely, a president can only stay in his or her official through 2 sequential terms according to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. In this situation that means 12 years which is coming to an end soon.
Finally, the establishment decided to leave the door of the presidential office open for Putin. They would use a Constitutional amendment as their means of action. The Duma received the proposal from no one else but the World-known icon Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman astronaut. She presented that although the presidential terms must continue to be limited in two terms, the recognition of Putin’s terms must be restarted. In her argument, she referred to the necessity of preserving Russia’s security and stability in the current challenging times and circumstances. Furthermore, Tereshkova’s proposal was not the only future amendment. Putin himself initiated an amendment for a state organization reform. This would describe the president not only as the head of the state but as the head of the executive branch as well. Thus not only does this initiative give the control of all public authorities in the hands of Putin, but he could also increase his influence over the judiciary. Namely, the proposal would restrict the authority of the courts besides the Parliament.
This was the moment when the well-planned drama began. Putin was summoned into the Duma and he appeared within 90 minutes, ready to bow before the will of “the nation”. Nevertheless, according to his two conditions, he would only accept the proposal, if both the Constitutional Court finds it constitutional, and “the people” also vote for it. This is a rather “generous” offer from a man who has the Court under his influence. The other condition must also be tricked, as the success of this centralization move is quite uncertain according to the legal procedure described in the Constitution. So in the light of the “special circumstances”, the regime wants to avoid the legitimate procedure of the referendum and wants to change the Constitution by an illegal and unknown voting procedure. The drama ended with the resignation of the Russian government. Prime minister Dmitrii Medvedev was immediately granted a new position as the deputy chairman of the Security Council. Mikhail Mishustin who had served Putin as the head of the Tax Service for 10 years became the new Prime Minister of the new government.
The two amendments were approved by both the Duma and the Federation Council – the two Houses of the Russian Parliament. So did the 85 regions and republics of the Russian Federation is, and not surprisingly, the Court itself. For now, only the illegitimate vote is needed technically for these amendments to become into force. There was no doubt that Putin signed these amendments that will empower him even more. Although to compensate for this unlawfulness, he signed it in March, in the days of the 6th anniversary of the Crimean annexation. For the same reason the vote will be held on Lenin’s birthday, the 22 of April.
At first sight, it seems that Putin could take the presidential office until 2036 if he wishes. But as a true Ex-KGB agent, he would never let himself be vulnerable to the grace of fortune, especially at the age of 83. So, Putin had prepared for a long run. The newly amended Constitution will introduce a new legal system. That means that if the new Constitution will not have a retroactive effect, Putin could run for two more presidential terms in 2036. So legally, Putin, now 67, can stay in power until the age of 95.
In light of this situation, a rightful question arises. Is there a possible scenario for Putin to get out from his power? Probably, the reason why he is so eager to grip to his power is that he has no way back. If he retired in 2008, he would have been able to maintain not only his safety but also his positive reputation in Russia. His last moment for an exit without any harm was in 2012. But by then his legacy would have been a Russian state declining and lagging behind its Western counterparts. However, he chose at this point to put Medvedev aside and return as a president. Although he has gone too far since then. There is a point of no return for him after his quasi-dictatorial exercise of power and the transformation of the Russian political system into a hybrid dictatorship.
But this is the classic “Catch-22” for him. Because the longer he stays in power, the less he could pass his power peacefully one day. He can no longer find “his own Putin” who could guarantee his future security just as he did to Yeltsin. Even if he could find someone who could have his absolute trust, he would never be convinced fully that this person will be able to guarantee his security in the long run. Although the game is still the same, the rules have been changed – most of them by Putin himself.
This is because the rule of law has always been secondary in Russia. The source of all wealth and security is the presidential power. Putin seeks to establish a new political elite that depends only on himself. Partly they are made from the children of the oligarchs and other talented technocrats as well. However, the real elite are not the oligarchs, but the heads of the security and secret services, who are appointed by Putin himself. The National Guard founded in 2016 is also under the direct command of the president. Their primary task is to protect the president and the political system – the president rather than protecting the country. It is not a coincidence that the regime is increasing spending much more on them than on the official army. Furthermore, the president also has the authority to manage the government and to name the judges.
It is true that the executive power has always been extremely strong in Russia. But, with the over-centralization of the presidential power, Putin has actually become a prisoner of his own system. He cannot give up a position with such a brutal concentration of power. Even if he considerably weakens the presidential powers, his successor would still have enough power to dominate the whole system. The current constitutional amendments demonstrate that in Russia, the Constitution can be rewritten at any time. Legal guarantees do not matter. The one thing that only matters is power.
The author of this article is András Mikó.