How Russia’s Putin Is Planning for Permanent Power After His Presidency

World Politics Review, 18.02.2020
Andrei Kolesnikov, académico ruso y presidente del Programa Política Rusa e Instituciones (Carnegie Moscow Center)

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the State Council in Moscow, Jan. 15, 2020 (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP).

Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s daughter, recalled in her memoir that before the tyrant drew his final breath, he cast a menacing glance at the confidantes and relatives gathered around him, then raised his arm as if to point to something or threaten someone. He may have been attempting to articulate his final request or even designate a successor, but no one ever decoded the gesture. Stalin left no formal plans for succession despite having ruled the Soviet Union for three decades. After his death, three senior officials—Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov and Lavrenty Beria—quickly entered into a fierce power struggle to lead the Soviet state.

Vladimir Putin wants to avoid that kind of political uncertainty after his presidency is up. That is why last month, he suddenly announced a shake-up of his Cabinet and a set of far-reaching constitutional reforms in Russia that lay the groundwork for his political future after his presidential term ends in 2024. Just hours after the announcement, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned, and a mostly unknown bureaucrat was appointed to replace him.

The proposed constitutional amendments are currently being finalized and fast-tracked through the Duma, Russia’s legislature. They stipulate that Putin’s time as president is coming to an end and that he will not be able to serve as president after 2024, even if he leaves office for a term. Future presidents will not be allowed to serve more than two six-year terms, even non-consecutively.

Part of Putin’s aim is to prepare a new position for himself after he steps down. He will become chair of the State Council, currently an advisory body largely made up of regional governors, but which Putin wants to enshrine in the constitution with greater powers. In its new form, the State Council would determine the main directions of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy, as well as its top socioeconomic priorities. This expansive new role is reminiscent of the status given to the Communist Party in the 1977 constitution of the Soviet Union, as “the leading and guiding force” of society.

Essentially, the constitutional reforms will create a kind of permanent ruling superstructure controlled by Putin and his associates. They will lead the country no matter who becomes president. But this sets up a potential power struggle, because the president is always perceived as the ultimate authority in Russia—a perception that created a certain discomfort for Putin when he served as prime minister from 2008 until 2012, with Medvedev formally occupying the role of president.

Kremlin lawyers will need to finalize the language of a new special law governing the status of the reformed State Council, so the details will remain unclear for some time. But presumably, the council’s chair will be protected from potential political attacks by the future president. Putin will want to guarantee that he is secure in his new role, possibly even by making his position a permanent appointment.

By creating a kind of “father of the nation” role for himself, Putin is taking a similar approach to Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led neighboring Kazakhstan for three decades before stepping down as president in 2019, keeping his post as chief of the Security Council and staying on as informal head of state. Nazarbayev may eventually come into conflict with his presidential successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, but for now, he maintains control of the political system.

While the constitutional revisions in Russia are mainly being dictated by Putin, he is taking measures to give the process a democratic veneer. A special working group consisting of Kremlin-appointed “representatives” from various social and professional groups—a pale imitation of an independent civil society—is preparing additional proposed amendments. Its proposals range from codifying Russia’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II to defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Another legal innovation in Putin’s proposed amendments is to recognize the supremacy of national law over international law. While the details of this move are still vague, the rationale is clear. Russia faces by far the highest number of complaints of any country at the European Court of Human Rights, and the number of claims against Moscow has doubled in the past three years. A new constitutional primacy of national law could allow Russia to justify ignoring the court’s decisions against it, which are often painful both reputationally and financially. It would also allow Russia to further strengthen its sovereignty, one of the most prominent words in Putin’s lexicon.

Russians have shown an increasing willingness in recent years to demand change. In a survey conducted by the Carnegie Moscow Center last year, 59 percent of respondents favored “decisive comprehensive change,” with their grievances centering primarily on socioeconomic issues. In an attempt to appear responsive to such demands, Putin has proposed writing several social guarantees into the constitution, including the indexation of pensions. This is a naked attempt to repurchase political loyalty after an unpopular pension reform in 2018 eroded Putin’s popularity and led to massive demonstrations.

Going forward, much will hinge on the outcome of the race to succeed Putin as president. One possibility is Mikhail Mishustin, the former head of the tax service who was appointed to replace Medvedev as prime minister. While many observers expected to see a technocrat in the post, Mishustin was an unlikely pick. No one besides Putin would have thought to choose such an obscure figure, yet his selection carries some logic. Mishustin excelled at the most important task under Russia’s model of state capitalism, which rests on massive government spending: efficient tax collection.

Putin also needs an effective bureaucracy to implement large-scale national infrastructure projects, which are Russia’s main instrument of economic policy. But under Medvedev, the money allocated for them was spent poorly, and the government lagged behind its goals. After Medvedev resigned as prime minister, Putin appointed him to the newly created role of deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, which may become a reserve position for a future presidential candidate but for now serves as an honorary sinecure for Medvedev.

Besides Mishustin, bureaucrats have also been appointed as ministers and deputy prime ministers. Many were largely unknown, both to the wider public and even to the political elite. Naturally, they will be extremely loyal to Putin. After all, he provided them with an unprecedented promotion. It’s highly reminiscent of the 1930s, when Stalin purged longstanding officials from high-level government positions and replaced them with young and unknown apparatchiks.

But this political shake-up hardly represents a fundamental change in Russia’s governance. These new officials are just the technical and bureaucratic servants of the real “Politburo”: Putin’s inner circle of military and security men. Pillars of the regime like the defense minister, the chief of the Federal Security Service and the interior minister all remain at their posts and continue to play key roles in Russia’s most important political decisions.

Putin has changed everything, but also nothing at all. He is still the top executive of an authoritarian regime in a state-managed capitalist system. And he will stay that way after 2024.

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