Constitutional changes mean Putin can rule through 2036

The Bell

If you have glanced at the news from Russia this week, you will know that President Vladimir Putin approved changes Tuesday to Russia’s constitution allowing him to ‘reset’ his presidential term count and — at least in theory — remain president until 2036. In April, the new constitution will be put to a national referendum, the result of which is a foregone conclusion. Once it enters force, Putin is eligible to run for a fifth and sixth presidential term, which may mean he becomes Russia’s longest-serving leader in 450 years.

We won’t go in detail about how Putin chose to announce his decision, or the complex legal procedures for enacting constitutional changes — but we will highlight several important details, and attempt to answer some of the most pressing questions.

  • Why? Putin said on multiple occasions he would not change the constitution to stay in power — so the Kremlin had to explain why he changed his mind. The outbreak of coronavirus was helpful here, as were crashing global markets. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said Putin’s decision reflected “extreme turbulence in the world”, and anonymous Kremlin sources told media outlet Meduza that “nullifying” of presidential terms was put on the agenda when tensions with Turkey over Syria rose at the end of February. In 2011, when Putin decided to return to the presidency, replacing Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin didn’t give any official explanations. But sources in journalist Mikhail Zygar’s bestselling book later explained the decision in a similar way — a lack of confidence in Medvedev during the Libya conflict. Putin adviser Valentin Yumashev recently said (Rus) the same thing.
  • The drama. In time-old autocratic tradition, a ruler shouldn’t announce such decisions himself — rather the people should ask it of him. As an appropriate mouthpiece for ‘the people’, the Kremlin selected State Duma deputy Valentina Tereshkova, the Soviet Union’s first female astronaut. She is not only well known, but has over 50 years of parliamentary experience (she became a deputy to the Supreme Soviet in 1966). By using such a person, the Kremlin was protecting itself from criticism. “Attacks on Tereshkova are attacks against our country,” Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said Friday. In the same session, he also said, “Our competitive advantage is not oil and gas, it’s Vladimir Putin.”
  • Smokescreen. The announcement that Putin’s presidential terms would be ‘reset’ was preceded by two months of discussion on constitutional reform. Constitutional changes include the addition of a reference to God, a reference to the Russian people being “state-forming”, marriage as a “union between a man and a woman”, and a reminder about the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. All of this was the subject of public discussion, and many of the proposals came in for criticism. But with Putin’s announcement Tuesday it became clear that all of these debates were only a distraction from the most important change of all.
  • Speed. We have pointed out many times that Putin likes carrying out political decisions like special operations. This time he outdid himself. The presidential term ‘reset’ was proposed by Tereshkova ahead of the second reading of the constitutional reform bill, the last moment when amendments can be submitted. Within 24 hours, the whole bill had been passed by the Duma and the Federation Council, and, 48 hours later, 75 regional parliaments out of 85 had also voted in favor (local governments must also approve constitutional changes). Now, the bill must be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, and, after that, Putin can announce a date for a referendum (likely to be April 22). The speed of the process deprived the opposition of an opportunity to organize protests, explained political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya.

How will Putin’s powers change?

With the Kremlin hinting that Putin would step down from the presidency, many were surprised by the contents of the constitutional reform, which boosts the — already enormous — authority of the Russian presidency. With the announcement this week, it all becomes much more understandable. These are the most important new presidential powers:

  • The right to dismiss judges, including members of the Constitutional Court (with the approval of the Federation Council).
  • The right to dissolve the State Duma if, in the process of forming a government, deputies do not approve the candidature of more than one-third of ministers.
  • An extra legislative veto — ahead of signing laws, the president can send them for review to the Constitutional Court (which is totally under his control).
  • A stipulation in the constitution that the president provides “overall leadership to the government”, and the prime minister must carry out the president’s orders.

Will there be protests?

All of the political experts contacted by The Bell were confident there will be no protests. Only about 2 percent of the population is prepared to take to the streets, according to Denis Volkov, a sociologist at independent pollster Levada Center. However, he said there could be protests ahead of the 2024 presidential election. “A significant number of people approve of Putin and recognize his service to the country, but far fewer see him as someone who can carry the country into the future,” he told The Bell. “When the real question of the next president arrives, the potential for protest may increase.”

Will Putin definitely run for election in 2024?

This is a big question — to which no-one knows the answer, likely not even Putin himself. But Putin’s behaviour is entirely in character: he likes to give himself the maximum number of possible options and leave a decision until the last moment. Currently, the Russian leader’s political position is not as solid as it might appear. His approval rating fell (Rus) to a historic low of 29 percent in February. By comparison, even at the peak of 2018 protests against the pension age increase, Putin’s approval rating didn’t go below 35 percent.

Political expert Konstantin Kalachev said Putin is highly unlikely to leave the presidency at a moment of economic and political decline — he will only depart during a period of positivity. “He isn’t holding onto power, but rather onto his place in history,” said Kalachev. “He is waiting for an opportunity… to be able to say: I built the foundations and I created the conditions for growth, now let someone else continue what I started.”

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