Rebooting the State Council Increases Putin’s Power

Vladimir Putin’s proposed draft law on the head of state’s main advisory body reveals more about the current presidency than Putin’s post-presidency plans.

Expert comment Published 28 October 2020 2 minute READ

Since its creation by presidential decree in 2000, the State Council has largely been seen as a peripheral body but this began to change in recent years, and Putin’s new draft law consolidates these changes.

The bill allows the president to achieve at least three things at once: further de-institutionalize governance structures to give him more flexibility and appointment powers; step back from day-to-day governance while still retaining control; and structure decision-making between his subordinates on national priorities across branches of power and layers of the federation.

The largely dormant Council started to wake up in 2018, largely due to the declaration of the National Projects – a state-led investment programme to spur economic growth and social development announced by Putin at the start of his fourth presidential term.

This programme is crucial to the regime’s legitimacy, with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin declaring the National Projects to be the government’s main priority. But, even before the pandemic, implementation of the Projects had been weak, in part because of ineffective coordination across different parts of the Russian state. The State Council is seen as one possible way to bring key actors together to tackle this problem.

Acknowledging its newfound importance, a brief reference to the Council was added to the Russian constitution as part of a broader set of changes this year. The president’s draft law fleshes out proposed details of this revamped body.

Transition to the ‘Great Presidency’

Plans for rejuvenating the State Council mark the transition to a ‘Great Presidency’ sitting atop Russia’s new ‘unified system of public power’. This concept – added to the constitution in reforms this year and defined in the Council draft law – boils down to the blurring or removal of formal separations between different units and levels of the state.

Federal and regional executives would gain de facto control over local self-government, thereby depriving municipalities of their independence. Putin would gain considerable flexibility in appointing members of the Council so that, depending on his wishes, he could bring together representatives of the Presidential Administration, the federal government, the Federal Assembly, regional governors, and even mayors.

The logic is simple. The National Projects are defined by the presidency – and their implementation requires the subordination of all levels of governance. This new State Council would, therefore, embody a further de-institutionalization of power in Russia.

By assembling senior politicians and officials in this one body, Putin can delegate tasks of everyday governance to his subordinates even more than he already does, allowing him to focus on the areas of real interest for him. Putin can, in effect, put governance on ‘auto-pilot’.

When examining transition scenarios for Putin, many commentators observed that the State Council might enable Putin to step away from the presidency while retaining control of Russian politics. But it makes more sense now to think of a different transition – from the current presidency to the ‘Great Presidency’, which includes more power for an already ‘super-presidential’ system, as well as the option for Putin to leave it to others to worry about everyday decisions.

The composition of the executive committee – called the ‘praesidium’ – of the revamped State Council would be a key sign of its likely performance. The existing praesidium consists of eight governors. If high-ranking officials – for instance, from the federal executive – are appointed, this will make the body an important forum for negotiating national goals, and managing crises such as the coronavirus pandemic.

The identity of the Council secretary is also important. Currently a third-tier Presidential Administration official – albeit with close personal ties with Putin – the new secretary could be a political-bureaucratic heavyweight, making the State Council effectively the ‘civilian’ counterpart to the Security Council. And, although bureaucratic support for the Security Council in the Presidential Administration is now much more powerful than for the State Council, this balance could change.

Even though changes outlined in the bill will likely not dramatically improve governance or reduce uncertainty about what Putin’s plans might be for 2024, relying more on the State Council for ‘auto-pilot governance’ might serve as a test drive for a future presidential transition. A body that many Russians have likely not even heard of could play a key role in Russia’s political transformation.