The Russian elite is jostling to solve Putin’s ‘2024 problem’

The Bell

Hello! This week we look at how a senior official wants President Vladimir Putin stay in power after his current term ends in 2024. We also explain why protests over the exclusion of independent candidates from local elections is a sign of a system under strain, and how Moscow is set to roll-out one of the world’s biggest face recognition systems.

The Russian elite is jostling to solve Putin’s ‘2024 problem’

Vyacheslav Volodin (right) and Vladimir Putin

The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, this week publicly offered a solution to Putin’s ‘2024 problem’ — what to do about the constitutional limit on two consecutive presidential terms.

Volodin, who was previously oversaw domestic politics in the Kremlin, published an article (Rus) in the State Duma’s official magazine laying out his idea for changing the constitution to give parliament more authority. If his piece is read alongside a Bloomberg article published on 12 July (the timing is unlikely a coincidence), it becomes clear what he is actually talking about.

  • Volodin’s most significant proposal is to increase parliament’s authority, giving it the right to approve or reject government ministers before they are appointed.
  • Greater powers for parliament ties in very well with the plan Bloomberg reported, citing sources in the Kremlin and the Duma. This envisions moving Putin to the position of prime minister, for which he would qualify as the leader of the ruling United Russia party. The powers of the new president, in this scenario, would be downgraded.
  • To achieve this, the Kremlin will change the electoral rules for the Duma, making 75% of its deputies elected via single-mandate constituencies (the current figure is 50%). This would be necessary because United Russia is deeply unpopular and, in order to win, United Russia candidates will have to hide their party affiliation or stand as independents. Recent elections have shown how the Kremlin’s chosen candidates are no longer guaranteed victory.
  • Putin cannot stand for another term as president and he has always said that he doesn’t plan to change the constitution to scrap the two-term limit. In 2008, he handed over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev, before returning to the top spot in 2012.

Volodin’s plan could solve three problems at once:

  • Making Putin the prime minister in a parliamentary, or semi-parliamentary, republic is a simpler solution than the other options. The second most discussed way forward is the union of Russia and neighboring Belarus, after which Putin could become president of the new, joint state. This plan has not been abandoned, but as long as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko remains alive it will be difficult to realise.
  • It would allow Volodin to return to his role at the heart of the Kremlin. From 2011 to 2016, he oversaw domestic politics in the Presidential Administration — in Russia’s informal hierarchy of power, this is a much more important role than parliament speaker (Volodin’s appointment to the Duma was seen as a demotion).
  • A major additional plus point for Volodin’s plan is that it might boost both the Duma’s and Putin’s popularity as an increase in parliament’s powers may persuade voters someone is listening to them. Volodin mentions this in his article; in his words, constitutional reform must address the demand for social justice.

The crucial question is: what does Putin think? According to Bloomberg, he has not yet decided what he will do when his current term ends. Though 2024 is still half a decade away, if Volodin’s plan is chosen, work will need to begin soon: the next Duma elections are in 2021.

Why the world should care

The Russian elite is increasingly obsessed with the ‘2024 problem’, and jostling within the elite is already well underway. At present, a variation of Volodin’s plan seems the most likely outcome. Indeed, similar changes were suggested last year by the highly experienced chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, who has built his 25-year career on successfully anticipating the Kremlin’s wishes.

Protests over Moscow’s local elections highlight cracks in the system

If the Kremlin wants to keep Putin in power beyond 2024, it will have to improve the functioning of its political management machine. Anger this week over local elections in the capital revealed how the system is faltering: the authorities’ ineptitude turned the vote — in which no one was interested — into a trigger for repeated demonstrations in downtown Moscow.

  • Elections to the Moscow City Duma will take place on September 2. The body doesn’t really decide anything, and voter turnout is traditionally low. Ahead of the campaigns, a survey showed 89% of the population was uninterested in the outcome. However, the city authorities, who are trying to stop independent candidates from running, acted in such a way that everyone has now heard about the election.
  • To be registered to stand, candidates must gather signatures from 3 percent of the people in their districts (on average about 5,000 signatures). For independent candidates this is a near impossible task. Those standing for parties represented in the State Duma are excused this obligation.
  • The difficulties presented by this rule forced independent candidates to organise serious campaigns to try and gather the necessary signatures. About 20 of them were successful, and many locals learnt about the elections in the process. At the same time, United Russia candidates also had to collect signatures because, in order not to be associated with their unpopular party, they were instructed to run as independents. This meant the authorities had to disqualify potential candidates with real support and register pro-Kremlin candidates with obviously fake lists of signatures.
  • The violations were so obvious that even the signature of one independent candidates in support of another was deemed (Rus) counterfeit. In another case, the signature of an activist for an independent candidate was declared invalid, and a fake signature from the same activist was found in a list submitted by a pro-government candidate.
  • In the end, the Moscow authorities found themselves with 100,000 people from all over the city who had given their signatures in support of excluded independent candidates. The phrase “we exist” became the slogan of the subsequent — albeit modest — protests that have been taking place every evening since in central Moscow.

Why the world should care

The Kremlin’s political management machine is coping less well with each passing election, and their failure in Moscow significant — in a crisis, the country’s fate will be decided in the capital. This is a bad sign ahead of the 2021 Duma elections, and a blow to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, whose name appears in discussions of presidential candidates in 2024.

Moscow is set to install a state-of-the-art face recognition system

While paranoid internet users across the world call for a boycott of FaceApp, the Russian app that generates an image of an elderly you, Moscow City Hall is building the world’s largest face recognition system. Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, will take part in development and has already collected the biometrical data of tens of millions of Russians.

  • Moscow City Hall announced a tender this year for 105,000 video cameras with face recognition software. As of now, only 1,500 have been installed, but the police have already used them to identify and arrest about 100 criminals. According to The Bell’s calculations, the new system will cost no less than $50 million, a price tag that the city can easily afford.
  • There are three main bidders: Ntechlab, which was founded by people close to the Presidential Administration (we wrote about it in detail here) and two companies in which Sberbank is a shareholder: Speech Technology Center and VisionLabs.
  • Market sources say that Moscow’s face recognition system, once rolled out, will only be comparable in size with systems already in place in China.
  • Sberbank looks well placed to provide the raw data to make the system work. Since last year, the bank has been collecting biometric data from its clients (93 million people), and in December, CEO German Gref said they already have data from “millions of people”.

Why the world should care

Concentrating resources could mean Russia becomes the world’s number two player in face recognition systems. Remember this when you visit Moscow, walk the city’s streets and see the mounted cameras on every building.

Support The Bell!

The Bell's Newsletter

An inside look at the Russian economy and politics. Exclusively in your inbox every week.