Vladimir Putin’s proposed constitutional reforms will transform Russia’s political regime and allow him to prolong his grip on power when his fourth presidential term expires in 2024.
The proposals suggest that he will not seek another term as president after 2024, but is preparing the ground for retaining power after he leaves the presidency. The changes will introduce checks and balances on his close associates and ensure the country’s judiciary, legislative and executive bodies remain passive.
The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, is unlikely to rock the boat with legislative elections approaching in 2021. Former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet has been replaced by an acting government headed by a new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin. The highest courts will be weakened further by Putin’s proposal to give the president the power to dismiss judges.
Most of the proposed changes are vague. Notable specific proposals include the requirement that any presidential candidate must be resident in Russia for a minimum of 25 years prior to the elections, and that anyone who has held a residency permit abroad at any point in their life would not be eligible to run. This is clearly aimed at eliminating political opposition based abroad.
While Putin mentioned a popular vote on the constitutional changes (which is not required by law), it is important to note that he didn’t use the term ‘referendum’, which would have mandated that the results be acted upon. Regardless, it is clear that, with no easy foreign policy and military wins in the offing, Putin will seek to boost his legitimacy through a popular vote. The current federal electoral cycle starts next year and will end in 2024 with the presidential election.
The key question now is how Putin will maintain control over the siloviki, Russia’s political elite, though he has made this task easier for himself by replacing some of the strongest players with mid-level officers and weakening the authority of those who remain.
The proposals to consult with the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, when appointing siloviki and to keep the president in charge of law enforcement are a smokescreen. Putin will consolidate his power through his leadership at the Security Council and by chairing the State Council. For this reason, Putin is seeking to enshrine the State Council, which was reshaped in 2018 to include senior government ministers, in the constitution.
It is too early to be certain of the major beneficiaries of these sweeping reforms, though Sergey Sobyanin, the current mayor of Moscow, is likely to become Putin’s deputy at the State Council. The head of the audit chamber, Alexei Kudrin, and Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko are also likely to benefit from the changes, after helping to develop Putin’s political and economic strategies prior to the 2018 presidential election.
Notably, the audit chamber, headed by Kudrin, will now have the power to check Rostekh, Rosneftegaz and Gazprom, organizations associated with major siloviki figures Sergey Chemezov and Igor Sechin. The role offered to Medvedev – deputy chair of the Security Council – will be newly created: the scope is unclear but it is unlikely that Putin will relinquish any of his influence over the siloviki.