On January 15, 2020, as Russia slowly emerged from its prolonged New Year’s and Orthodox Christmas holidays, President Vladimir Putin suddenly announced a series of constitutional changes. The same day, Putin reshuffled his government, replacing his long-serving loyal prime minister and former president, Dmitry Medvedev, with Mikhail Mishustin (53)—a faceless technocrat and, until then, head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service. Some Cabinet ministers retained their positions, some were moved to occupy top posts in the Kremlin, while others were rotated from the Kremlin to the Cabinet (see EDM, January 16). Initially, the constitutional reform seemed to be, in essence, a rewrite with some editorial changes here and there that did not change that much. After the president announced these constitutional amendments, observers in Russia and abroad speculated whether this marked the “beginning of the transition,” as many believed Putin was planning to delegate power out of the Kremlin in preparation for what would come after the end of his fourth presidential term in 2024—which, constitutionally, should be his last. It was assumed Putin was creating a powerbase outside the Kremlin as, say, the chair of the State Council, or Duma speaker, or prime minister with enhanced powers, or something else. Yet, all those commentators were wrong: Putin is not relinquishing any presidential powers or leaving the political scene. Instead, the constitution is now being amended to strictly ban anyone from holding more than two presidential terms; but the Kremlin-controlled Constitutional Court has simultaneously ruled that Putin’s previous terms do not count and, thus, he is eligible for two more six-year terms (until 2036), should he choose to run again (see EDM, March 16).
Putin is 67 and has the prospect of 16 more years of nearly unbounded power in the Kremlin. Both chambers of the Russian parliament, the lower Duma and the upper Federation Council, rubber-stamped this new Russian constitution a week ago (Interfax, March 11). A constitutional amendment must be ratified by two thirds of the local legislatures of the subjects of the Russian Federation. And in two days (March 12 and 13) all 85 (including occupied Crimea and Sevastopol city) federation subjects swiftly and unquestionably voted to ratify (Newsru.com, March 13). The Constitutional Court then took less than two days to compose a lengthy legal document vetting all the amendments, insisting the prolongation of Putin’s rule is fully legal and democratic because it will reflect the will of the people and because Putin is only granted the opportunity to run for president two more times, in a “democratic” election against other candidates (Interfax, RBC, March 16).
To finalize this effective power grab, a national plebiscite has been scheduled for April 22. Legally, such a plebiscite is not required, but Putin has requested a national vote to additionally legitimize his newly extended rule. The April 22, 2020, date was chosen because it falls right between Orthodox Easter (April 19) and the commencement of Ramadan (April 23). The date of the plebiscite could still be shifted if the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic worsens in Russia; but most likely, it will go ahead—the Kremlin seems in a hurry to finalize this process (RBC, March 17).
The majority of the Russian public does not understand the language or legal sense of Putin’s constitutional amendments other than that they are a means to promote his perpetual rule. Some 46 percent of Russians surveyed say they do not want Putin to be president after 2024, but 45 percent would approve of it. Opposition figures and prominent Russian intellectuals have staged protests; nonetheless, most of those who will go to vote in the coming plebiscite will likely vote “Yes” anyway. Promises of better public health care, pension and social payout hikes have been attached to the constitutional amendments to secure a better turnout and higher approval vote. In any case, elections in Russia are regularly rigged. In Moscow—probably the most opposition-minded city in the country—online voting, in part offered to enhance turnout and boost voters’ safety amidst the coronavirus threat, may additionally allow Russia’s state-affiliated computer hackers to doctor both the results and turnout numbers (Newsru.com, February 28).
Speaking before the Duma after accepting the legislature’s “consent” to participate in two more future reelections, President Putin declared: Russia is surrounded by enemies, the world is unstable, the price of oil is tumbling and the COVID-19 health emergency is closing down whole countries. According to Putin, Russia will overcome all obstacles as long as the constitutional amendments are approved. The nation must consolidate, and Russia’s institutions are still too weak, the Kremlin leader insisted. No obvious successor exists to take over from Putin, and no viable opposition figure is ready to lead the country. Only Putin can guarantee stability and progress, the argument goes (Vesti, March 15). According to Senator Andrei Klyshas, who was the co-chair of the constitutional amendments working group, Russians would have experienced frustration and distress if Putin was forbidden from running for president in 2024 (Lenta.ru, March 18).
Putin used the multifaceted economic distress of the COVID-19 outbreak, the global (and domestic) economic downturn, the falling price of oil (Russia’s main export commodity) as well as the devaluation of the ruble (which lost some 30 percent of its value since the New Year) as excuses to press through his constitutional power grab. The evolving crises are real, but some are Putin’s own fault; and clearly, no one was expecting things to turn so severe so quickly. The Russian government (as many others) underestimated the coronavirus threat, and Putin personally approved Russia’s withdrawal from the OPEC+ oil price cartel agreement, which precipitated the collapse in oil prices. Apparently, Putin was told Russia could better weather the coming storm, while shale-oil production in the United States would collapse. The US is seen as Russia’s (and Putin’s) main enemy, so hindering it in any way is always considered a good thing in the corridors of power in Moscow (Rosbalt, March 11). Now, Putin and his government are facing the prospect of household incomes (already low in Russia) further collapsing, of GDP contracting and businesses closing down. Putin survived previous storms and seems confident he can weather this one, too. But he could eventually end up like Mexico’s President Porfirio Díaz, who ruled from 1876 to 1911, promoting progress and development that enriched only a small technocratic elite. The ouster of Díaz after his seventh reelection in 1910 was followed by a decade of bloody and devastating civil war—the Mexican Revolution.