By Gordon M. Hahn, Originally published January 18, 2020
Russia’s soft authoritarian leader, President Vladimir Putin, has sent shock waves through Moscow and the Russian elite with the constitutional and government shakeup he proposed on Wednesday in a speech to the Federal Assembly, composed of the State Duma and Federation Council, the lower and upper chamber of Russia’s parliament. Contrary to the Washington consensus and cartoonish rusological ‘analysis’ that predominates mass media and academia regarding Putin as ‘dictator’ and today’s ‘Stalin’ or ‘Hitler’, he has proposed changes that augur some re-democratization of Russia’s political system through constitutional changes. At the same time, however, the number options and scenarios opened up by Putin’s proposals leave him, as is his style, with considerable room for maneuver. It is impossible to know precisely what Putin’s endgame is here, and it is possible that he has not decided that for himself. The answer to the question ‘Will he stay or will he go?’ in particular the time frame for the latter was not clearly answered.
However, the proposed amendments appear to mark the beginning of a process that will not only address the problem of 2024, when his second consecutive term will end and the constitution requires he leave the presidency. They might also be aimed at eventually allowing him to give up power, but that endgame could be a decade down the road. Putting forward these proposed amendments is very likely a trial balloon to check the reaction of the elite and public. Elite and public reaction will inform Putin’s next steps, including final decisions on which constitutional changes he will ultimately support and whether he will remain president or adopt another post or other posts when his term ends in order to keep his hand on the helm under the new president(s). In any case, the 2024 ‘transition’ arrived on 15 January 2020, and Putin’s proposed changes appear to mark a modest, if significant de-authoritarianization of Russia’s political system.
Putin broached the idea of constitutional changes in his address – change first proposed by State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin earlier this year in the form of giving the Duma greater control over the government – with somewhat open-ended support for changing the words in the constitution which made it possible for him to return to the presidency in 2012. He had mentioned the possibility of amending Article 81.3, in particular its limit on one and the same person serving as president “for more than two terms in a row” a few weeks ago in his annual marathon press conference. Now, in his speech to the Federal Assembly he again mentioned this, but he did not specify clearly in what way the stipulation should be changed.
His fuzzy wording opens up the possibility that he may not want to simply repeal the words ‘in a row’ but would replace ‘for more two terms in a row’ with the words ‘three’ or ‘four terms’ with or without the words ‘in a row.’ If Putin seeks to repeal the words in a row, then he would no longer be eligible to run for president, and Dmitrii Medvedev – who is now former prime minister as a result of the government’s resignation (see below) – would be limited to a single term, since he had a term in 2008-2012. But again, there is no clear statement from Putin specifying his position beyond supporting discussing this issue. His claim, in the speech, that he does not see this as a “principal” question gives the impression that he was assuming possible removal of just the words ‘in a row’ and that he plans to leave the presidency, since Putin often attempts to downplay precisely important matters, especially those that touch on his power. Any other change to Article 81.3 would indeed be even more ‘principal’: adding to the number of terms. He called for a discussion of this issue and proposals on other constitutional changes from other bodies and public groups, in effect opening up a nationwide discussion on the presidency, the constitution, checks and balances, his post-2024 role, and, in effect democracy versus authoritarianism.
His other constitutional proposals appear designed to be implemented before September 2021’s Duma elections. They mark a significant redistribution of power, moving the political system away from a presidential system to a more liberal republican presidential-parliamentary system and balancing the branches of government more evenly by strengthening checks and balances. Each of the federal branches of power receives an upgrade in terms of power and independence, except the executive branch’s presidential part. The legislative Duma and Federation Council would receive new powers of control over the federal government. The Constitutional and Supreme Courts would receive more independence from the executive branch and presidency.
Specifically, Putin proposed transferring the power to appoint the federal government – the Prime Minister (PM), deputy PMs, and ministers – from the president, who presently nominates not only the government’s prime minister – to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament or Federal Assembly. The President will no longer play any role in the formation of the government or the appointment of the country’s arguably second-most powerful figure. Also under Putin’s proposal, the prime minister will propose the candidates for the government’s deputy prime ministerial and ministerial positions independently – with no role for the president – to the Duma for its approval by a majority of deputies. The present but soon to be defunct system allowed the president to dissolve the Duma and call new elections, if the Duma’s majority rejects his nominee for the premiership three times. Thus, the president also loses some leverage over the Duma. The president would retain the right to remove the prime minister and his government and propose a new prime minister to the Duma. Overall, the result of this reform would be to empower both the prime minister and the Duma by making the government less dependent on the president and more dependent on the Duma. It would also weaken the power of the president in relation to both, creating a presidential-parliamentary system in place of the former ‘super-presidential’ system for which Russia has been often criticized.
In addition, it was proposed to further empower the Federal Assembly’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, the senators of which represent Russia’s regions. The Federation Council would now have the power to advise the president on his nominees to head the ‘siloviki’ or power ministries (Defense Minister, Internal Affairs Minister, Prosecutor-General, and the directors of the FSB, SVR, and GRU) and “perhaps” the regions’ prosecutors, currently approved by regional legislative assemblies. Putin also proposed that the Federation receive the power to approve any presidential request to remove judges from the Constitutional and Supreme Courts in cases where the president has the constitutional power to do so, in particular if a judge has acted in ways that compromise the dignity of the court. He also proposed to increase the Constitutional Court’s role by empowering it upon a presidential request to review legislative bills and perhaps other official legal documents – both federal and regional – for their constitutionality before they are considered by parliament. Thus, Putin’s proposals also empower the Federal Assembly’s upper house and increase the independence and role of the high courts. Thе above proposals taken together would overturn much of the presidential nature of Russia’s constitution, spread power across the three branches of government more evenly, and increase the number of checks and balances.
In addition, Putin also called for codifying the role of the State Council (Gosudarstvennyi sovet or GosSovet) – a body composed of the regions’ increasingly popular governors and some federal officials and chaired by the president – in the constitution. What role and functions it would receive was left undeclared. If Putin intends to leave the presidency, then it is possible that the GosSovet’s ‘constitutionalization’ might codify in the constitution actual power (rather then influence as a consultative body) and another form of chairmanship for the GosSovet other than the president as its chairman ex officio. It is being conjectured that if he leaves the presidency, Putin could then become its chairman of what would be a newly empowered state body. One scenario would be to invest the GosSovet, rather than the president, the power to propose the candidate for PM to the Duma. This reform would also promote the role of the governors and thus the regions at the federal level. Putin also called for strengthening interaction between state and municipal bodies and giving “broadened and strengthened” “powers and real possibilities” to the presently non-governmental bodies of local self-administration – “the level of power closest to the people.” This issue could be paired with the GosSoviet’s future powers, giving its chairman influence at all levels of Russian government. These reforms mean a decentralization of power, somewhat reversing the centralization of power Putin has implemented for two decades.
About the writer
Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org; an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com.