Russia’s Uncertain Regime Transformation

Despite the drama, Vladimir Putin’s announcement endorsing a constitutional change allowing him to remain president from 2024 does surprisingly little to change the status quo.

Expert comment Published 11 March 2020 Updated 19 May 2022 3 minute READ

With Putin’s current term as head of state due to run out in 2024, the question everybody has been asking is what he will do to remain in power. The Russian president’s recent speech, made in person in the State Duma during the second reading of his own constitutional reform bill, has been interpreted by many as a clear answer. Summaries such as “Putin forever” and “perpetual Putin” abound. But the reality is not so clear.

Putin has not committed to standing for re-election in 2024, never mind staying in power until 2036, when two additional six-year terms from 2024 would run out. What he has done is provide the constitutional grounds to retain power as president. It creates a highly credible option without committing him to it.

And the uncertainty matters. Because as long as members of the elite are unsure whether Putin will take up the option to remain president, they are kept in check.

Broader constitutional reform

With the flurry of interest around Putin’s announcement, we should not lose sight of his moves to further strengthen the presidency. As part of the broader constitutional reform package, Russia’s existing “super-presidency” will gain additional powers, such as the authority to fire top-tier judges and to block legislation when the legislature has overridden a presidential veto (in other words, a “super-veto”).

The proposals also put the autonomy of local self-government at risk, with Moscow and regional executives gaining the constitutional power to hire and fire officials who are not even technically part of the state. And the president now has a formalised role as “general leader” of the government. Putin is creating the “Great Presidency”.

However, the majority of constitutional changes do not relate to the presidency – they have different purposes. Firstly, to revitalise support for the regime which took a hit following unpopular pension reforms in 2018. Secondly, to distract or appease those worried by Putin remaining in a strengthened presidency. And perhaps most significantly, to boost turnout in the nationwide vote on reforms.

This desire to re-energise popular support becomes apparent as the changes – some of which will have to be inserted rather awkwardly into the constitution’s structure – focus on three elements aimed squarely at improving the regime’s appeal: increased material support from the state for citizens, including indexing state pensions; an emphasis on “traditional values”, including a declaration that marriage can only be a union between a man and a woman; and increased Russian sovereignty, including a “nationalisation” of the elite, with a constitutional ban on top-level officials having bank accounts abroad.

Constitutional reform is, moreover, the most visible part of a broader political transformation already underway, including a major propaganda drive. Putin has promised a significant increase in resources for its “maternity capital” programme, putting more money in the pockets of young Russian families.

And he has instructed Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s government to focus on delivering his “national projects” – goals aimed at improving Russians’ lives across a range of areas, from infrastructure to education and healthcare.

Taking advantage of several imminent historical milestones is also on the cards. It has been reported Putin will sign the constitutional reform bill on March 18 – the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And May 9 is the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War (the Russian term for the Second World War), with foreign dignitaries invited to attend events in Moscow.

Putin has also been filling the airwaves with a high-production-values series called “20 Questions for Vladimir Putin”, as well as holding public meetings with citizens in provinces such as Cherepovets and Ivanovo. There is a clear aim to demonstrate the president is not only still in control, but also concerned with the well-being of everyday Russians.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2021 the Kremlin knows that, to maintain its control of a super-majority of seats in the State Duma, its ratings-raising drive has to work – even if it does always have the option of using manifestly authoritarian methods for realising desired election results. A proposal to call early State Duma elections was made during the second reading of Putin’s reform bill, but was quickly withdrawn after Putin spoke out against the idea.

Russia’s complex architecture of “power”

Throughout this transformation, maintaining control of the elite – particularly of the siloviki – is key for Putin. A reshuffling and removal of senior officials in the Procuracy has seen Yury Chaika replaced as general prosecutor by Ivan Krasnov, previously a deputy chair of the Investigative Committee, which is widely seen as a rival structure in Russia’s complex architecture of “power” bodies.

When considered alongside the constitutional changes giving the president broader powers in appointing regional prosecutors, this is textbook “divide and rule”. Power balancing is also on display with the Security Council, as the job description for Dmitry Medvedev’s new role as its deputy chair could provide fertile ground for clashes with the body’s secretary, Nikolai Patrushev.

Pitting rival patronal networks against each other means Putin can keep rivals in check within the broader structure of the “Great Presidency”, while staying firmly in control himself.

The prospect of Putin remaining president is unlikely to be popular. According to data from independent Russian polling agency the Levada Centre, only 27 per cent of Russians want Putin to stay in the post after 2024. This figure could, of course, change in either direction as the prospect becomes more real for Russians. But if Putin’s announcement galvanises mass opposition, the authorities may well use responses to the COVID-19 outbreak to keep protesters at bay – something already on display in Moscow.

What this all means for Russia is that, despite the drama, considerable uncertainty remains following Putin’s announcement. What we can say for certain, however, is that it dashes hopes of serious political change any time soon.