The convoluted intrigue with revising Russia’s Constitution came to a logical yet shockingly abrupt conclusion on March 10, distracting the elites and society at large from worries about the coronavirus pandemic and pushing them to reflect on the new political reality. President Vladimir Putin set in motion the constitutional deliberations in his address to the Federal Assembly, delivered much earlier than usual—on January 5. The rationale for his proposed new amendments was quite unclear; so in the process of public debates, all sorts of revisions, including a reference to God Almighty, were advanced. Some clarity finally arrived at last week’s session of the State Duma (lower chamber of the parliament), when Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman cosmonaut and regular upholder of the party-political line in many Soviet and Russian institutions, proposed to set the count of Putin’s presidential terms to zero. A break in the proceedings was announced, after which Putin himself addressed the duly enthusiastic parliament and expressed agreement with such “nullification.”
Seeking to preserve a modicum of uncertainty, Putin has yet to formally announce his intention to stand in the 2024 presidential elections; but the political class tends to take it for granted that he will be the only real candidate four years from now—and in the 2030 elections as well (Vedomosti, March 11). Doubts persist, nevertheless, about the plan, or indeed the lack of thereof, for managing the process of prolonging Putin’s power, which culminated in that above-described show in the parliament (Moscow Echo, March 11). After the reshuffle of the government back in January (see EDM, January 16), many seasoned courtiers were preparing positions for early parliamentary elections, which Putin suddenly ruled out as unnecessary (Kommersant, March 14). The Kremlin leader’s own rather lackluster performance reflects not so much a master-strike at the end of a “special operation” but rather a reluctant choice for a sub-optimal closure (Vedomosti, March 11). It is quite possible that instead of eliminating all speculation about a successor, Putin has created a set of much deeper political problems (Rosbalt, March 11).
His pledge assuring political stability comes at an inopportune moment, when Russia’s long-running economic stagnation is suddenly on the verge of collapsing into a recession of an unpredictable depth (Forbes.ru, March 11). Government officials try to talk this reality out of the public’s mind, but every contraction in the global markets inevitably hits Russia’s trade-dependent economy with irresistible force (RBC, March 13). In this downward slope, political prudence dictates proceeding with careful balancing, but the Kremlin has opted instead for a bold move against the multilateral deal on oil production cuts (Newsru.com, March 10). The so-called OPEC+ cartel, led by Saudi Arabia, had been under pressure due to falling demand, but Russia’s blunt refusal to partake resulted in its instant collapse and a furious price war, which has hurt Russia worse than the authorities had expected (Znak.com, March 10). Whatever miscalculations underpinned this blunder, Putin cannot push the blame on his lieutenants and cannot expect that the new spasm of crisis will motivate the masses to unite under his leadership (The Insider, March 13).
Mismanagement of the economy is an inherent feature of Putin’s system of power, and the new government can only resort to doctoring statistics in order to camouflage the scale of damage—and then to take the blame for it (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 11). The “technocrats” promoted by the inexperienced and underwhelming Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin are no match for the dominant siloviki (security services personnel), who push for more budget expenditures for the military and special services (Carnegie.ru, February 27). The government has only started to calculate its losses from the devalued oil and natural gas export, but the military-industrial complex bosses are upping rather than cutting their demands for increases in state funding for the wide range of modern weapon systems their factories are supposed to produce—particularly hypersonic missiles—playing on Putin’s propensity to brag about Russia’s superior military might (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, March 3). For the top brass and the chiefs of the Federal Security Service (FSB), National Guard (Rosgvardiya) and other order-enforcement structures, Putin is the perfect protector of Russia’s “hard security” interests. Therefore, their influence may have been decisive in shaping his decision for prolonging his super-presidency indefinitely (Republic, March 13).
For society, disoriented and disheartened as it is, the indecently rushed legislation granting Putin the ability to manipulate another presidential election was disappointing rather than welcome news. The preference for stability, which Putin emphasizes as the key priority, is eroding under the impact of fast-escalating challenges; and the demand for change is gradually building (Rosbalt, March 13). Official denials of Russia’s vulnerability to the coronavirus pandemic only add to the preexisting widespread irritation with the deterioration of the country’s health services. Moreover, those government denials strengthen popular convictions that the expanding “police state” cares little about public interests (Novaya Gazeta, March 14). Putin’s persistence with staging carefully orchestrated meetings with “loyal subjects” betrays his old-fashioned political mindset and inability to grasp the new means of communications in the rapidly modernizing society (Carnegie.ru, March 13). It was possible for him to produce a show of lively public debates around the issue of reformatting the state leadership, but he opted instead for the low-risk, simple solution that entirely cut out the public (Newsru.com, March 13). One inescapable outcome is the proliferation of jokes about a “nullification of the whole country” and promotion of “Vladimir Nullensky” to the position of “Null-sultan” (Moscow Times, March 13).
The execution of the least sophisticated option for entrenching the ruling regime proves Putin’s reduced capacity to plan complex political machinations as well as mobilizing public support for them. It also signifies a major acceleration to the deterioration of all political institutions in Russia. The State Duma had long ago been reduced to a rubber stamp parliament, and the Constitutional Court has lost most of its authority; but now the Constitution itself has been compromised and made more internally incoherent. What is even more impactful, and perhaps quite unexpected to Putin, is that the institution of the presidency itself, which was perceived as the core of the overgrown bureaucratic pyramid, has now also been weakened by the blatant usurpation of this role and legitimization of irreplaceable autocracy.
The vote for the package of constitutional amendments, scheduled for April 22, is legally dubious and can only be held if the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be downplayed. Putin has planned to amplify the boost of public support from this pseudo-plebiscite by staging pompous celebrations on Victory Day, May 9. But the obvious need to cancel them bodes ill for his corrupt rule.