The 15th of January was a seismic day in Russian politics. In his annual address to the Russian Federation, Putin outlined the most significant collection of constitutional reforms since 1993, leading to the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Medvedev and the entire cabinet. The seven proposed amendments to the constitution included a number of measures which would drastically shift the balance of power in government. Several targeted the Presidential office, stipulating that the Prime Minister should be appointed by Parliament instead of the President, that presidential candidates should have been resident in Russia for the last 25 years, and that office should be held for a two-term maximum. Others addressed the wider government, proposing that the role of the State Council should be bolstered and that political elites should not hold foreign citizenship. Finally, Putin stated that International Law should only apply to Russia in cases where it does not restrict the rights and freedom of the Russian people. These measures would weaken the power of the President whilst increasing the clout of Parliament, secure Putin’s circle of political allies and protect Russia from external influence.
Proposals to limit the power of the Presidency may seem surprising coming from an autocratic President himself. However, experts believe that these planned measures indicate Putin is laying the groundwork for his eventual step-down from the presidency, redistributing the balance of power to ensure that he can continue to pull the strings of government from behind the scenes. Masha Lipman, an editor on Russian politics, observed that by “taking away power from the presidency and empowering other institutions in Russian government…” Putin can maintain control as “the ultimate arbiter of disputes among the elites and decisions in the country” when his term ends in 2024. She speculates that Putin could step into the role of Head of the State Council, an advisory body with limited influence at present, but which Putin hopes to strengthen. Moreover, economist Timothy Ash suggests that the changes could be an attempt by Putin to refresh the current political system to deflect from popular discontent. Ash said that the changes signify an era of “reform, and improving the effectiveness of government to deliver growth and improving living standards.”
Indeed, it is no coincidence that Putin’s constitutional edits were announced at a time when popular trust in Russian government has dropped dramatically: a poll in January 2019 showed confidence had fallen by 33.4% compared to 2015, largely driven by decreasing disposable incomes and slowing GDP growth. Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is widely blamed for the economic downturn, as smouldering conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and long-term U.S. and E.U. sanctions have taken their toll on international trade. A clean slate of ministers might revitalise the image of Russian government and improve Putin’s popularity in the short term.
From a constitutional standpoint, the Presidential office cannot be held for more than two consecutive terms – a rule which Putin conveniently side-stepped 2008-2012 by swapping roles with Prime Minister Medvedev. Aged 67, and as Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin, it’s unlikely that Putin will attempt this maneuver again. Rather than relinquishing power, Putin’s government reshuffling hints that he will transition to a lower profile position and control politics from behind closed doors. The process so far has been meticulously democratic: Putin is not edging for a third term in office, did not purge the government, and promises a popular vote on the constitutional changes. Notably, however, Putin did not use the term ‘referendum’ which would have required that the results be acted upon. Putin has already announced that Medvedev will be replaced by Mikhail Mishustin, the current Head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service, who is widely regarded as an efficient bureaucrat with limited political ambition. The office of Prime Minister has historically been nonpolitical, an administrative tool for implementing the President’s domestic and foreign policies: Mishustin’s appointment is a strategic continuation of this tradition. Indeed, the smooth transition between Prime Ministers and quiet resignation of the cabinet is symptomatic of political loyalty towards Putin. The veil of democracy, the allegiance of key ministers and long timeframe allowed for change means that Putin’s transition to the back rooms of power will likely be smooth and protest-free.
Despite reform, the decade will be one of continuity rather than of change in Russian politics, and thus in Russian foreign policy. Putin’s actions over the past two decades – conflict in Ukraine, meddling in the Middle East, accusations of interference in the U.S. election and increased cyber-aggression, to name but a few – point towards an overarching goal of reasserting Russia’s sphere of influence upon its neighbours and restoring Russia’s position as a recognised superpower. Consequently, political stability within Russia may come at the cost of global political instability.
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