16 More Years of Putin: A Promise of Stability That Looks Like Stagnation
In an unscheduled, but quite choreographed appearance at the State Duma this week, Vladimir Putin has blessed a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stay in the Kremlin through 2036. “The President is the guarantor of the Constitution or, simply put, the guarantor of the country’s security, domestic stability and, as I said before, evolutionary development,” Putin told the lower chamber on March 10. What the 67-year-old leader, who may end up ruling Russia longer than Ivan the Terrible, did not mention in his address to the lower chamber, however, is that his lifetime presidency would actually bode ill for the stability of the country in the longer-term.
When Putin proposed back in mid-January to amend the Russian Constitution to dilute some of the presidential powers and empower the State Council (Gossovet), it was interpreted as evidence that he intends to continue playing a role in steering the country, but, perhaps, in a capacity other than that of president. In particular, Putin’s Jan. 15 proposals “to fix the status and role of the State Council in the Russian Constitution” and transfer the right to name the premier from the president to the parliament were seen as signs that he might leave the Kremlin when his fourth term expires in May 2024, but retain a different role at Russia’s helm. Other options discussed for Putin at the time included empowering the presidential Security Council, so that he could stay on as its chairman, or even becoming head of the Russian-Belarussian Union state. As the Kremlin’s domestic politics team gauged Russians’ reactions to these options in the wake of the January address, Putin initially appeared to be signaling that he would leave the Kremlin in May 2024, per the existing constitution, which prohibits anyone from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms. “It would be very worrisome in my view to return to the situation of the mid-1980s when the leaders of the state, one by one, stayed in power until the end of their days,” Putin told Russia’s WWII veterans on Jan. 18. Yet it is exactly that lifetime privilege that Putin chose to keep in his menu of options when he made his unusual, but choreographed, appearance in the State Duma on March 10. (And, ironically, it was the need for “stability, keeping everything the way it is, like in the 1970s and 1980s” that a Kremlin insider cited when praising the amendment in an interview with Financial Times, even though to many Soviet citizens that period was known as stagnation.) My guess is that conservatives who dominate his inner circle and who are interested in extending his rule as much as possible have convinced him to expand the number of options available to him come 2024 to include a continuation of his presidency.
The theatricals meant to portray this expansion of options as someone else’s initiative started with pro-Kremlin lawmaker Valentina Tereshkova, a former cosmonaut who was the first woman in space, proposing to either scrap “the artificial constructions” of limits on presidential terms or to reset the counter of these limits for Putin to zero at the March 10 Duma sitting. (Four days earlier, Putin had personally wished her a happy birthday, calling her a “real hero.”) The majority then quickly agreed to invite the president to appear in the Duma to discuss the matter, which he did. Putin accepted the invitation, and, as stated above, delivered a speech in which he touted his role in ensuring the country’s stability, but also conditioned his consent for resetting his number of presidential terms on having the nation’s Constitutional Court vet the proposal. Once he had spoken, Tereshkova and the rest of the Kremlin’s yes-women and -men voted to include the proposal into the raft of constitutional amendments before passing the full package to the upper chamber, the Federation Council, which is also dominated by Kremlin loyalists. The council wasted no time in endorsing the bill on March 11, with only one senator casting his vote against the amendments. The amendment package will now go to the Constitutional Court for vetting before it is put up for a nation-wide referendum on April 22.
Some of the nation’s leading constitutional law experts have already expressed reservations about the bill, but hardly anyone has any doubts that the Constitutional Court will endorse the amendment that would allow Putin to essentially become president for life if he wants to. Anyone who thinks otherwise should look up some of the public commentary by the court’s longtime chair, Valery Zorkin, who has not so long ago lamented what he saw as the negative consequences of abolishing serfdom in tsarist Russia (and never mind that he chairs the court supposed to ensure compliance with the law that enshrines the fundamental rights and freedoms of Russians). Public opinion has been split almost evenly between those who favor Putin staying in the Kremlin beyond 2024 and those who oppose it, but I expect those counting the ballots on April 22 to somehow ensure a resounding “yes” to this and other amendments.
There should also be no doubt that much of Russia’s ruling elite, which depends on Putin for jobs and fortunes, including some of the long-serving government ministers and chief executives of state-controlled conglomerates, stands to benefit from this arrangement both politically and financially. Kremlin tea-leaf-reading is never an easy exercise and we are yet to see whether Putin does decide to stay on as the president beyond 2024. What I am pretty confident in is that his continued stay in the Kremlin for two more terms, if not more, would bode ill for the long-term stable development of Russia, which saw its share of world’s gross domestic product and population shrink by 6 percent and 20 percent, respectively, on his watch, according to the IMF and World Bank. (Putin did preside over the period of impressive economic growth of 7 percent per year in the 2000s, but that fizzled out and his success in reversing depopulation in the 2010s proved to be short-lived).
Reversing these and other trends requires an orderly and timely transition of executive power, not a rewriting of the constitution to one man’s liking. It requires a system in which the executive, judicial and legislative branches of power balance and check each other in reality as opposed to just on paper. And it requires deep structural reforms that Putin welcomed in his first term, helping to foster a decade of growth, but then grew averse to as many in his retinue learned to benefit from the status quo. When anyone else will get a chance to move in to the Kremlin and whether he or she will then attempt such reforms is, as of this week, anyone’s guess.
Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters.
The opinions in this article are solely those of the author.
Photo by kremlin.ru.