On 22 April – the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth – changes to the Russian Constitution were due to be put to a public vote. Although this referendum has now been delayed as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic, they represent a potentially critical watershed moment for Russian politics. While the most likely outcome is an extension of Putin’s rule over Russia, polling suggests that the result may not be entirely clear cut. In this piece, Eamon Driscoll examines the future of Putin’s rule.
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A few months after the annexation of Crimea, I was in Moscow with friends. I had visited Lenin’s mausoleum that morning, and we were discussing the fact that, about twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the creator of said entity was still laying in state as the centrepiece of the Kremlin necropolis. One asked me if I thought Lenin would ever be moved. I considered this, and then offered the answer that, yes, Lenin would be taken out of the mausoleum and buried, but only after Vladimir Putin died. An empty mausoleum serves no purpose, after all. The resulting laughter had enough nervousness that I knew my friends understood – and that they were considering the possibility that even in death, Putin could be an ever-present figure in the Kremlin.
But that is a long way away. Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, is now in his fourth presidential term after being reelected in 2018. Over the course of his presidency, which first began over two decades ago on January 1st 2000, he has repeatedly taken steps in consolidating his power, from extending the length of presidential terms from four years to six, and using his former Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev to act as the intermission of presidencies between Putin’s second and third terms. Now, new measures have been proposed which would radically overhaul the Russian government.
Unexpectedly, incorporated in these changes are restrictions on the power of the presidency, and in turn elevating the power of the Prime Minister and State Duma. On the face of it, these measures may seem like positive developments for democracy and away from the cult of personality that has developed around Putin. When the changes were announced, there was a moment of hopefulness that a weaker president and stronger parliament might herald a transition towards a more transparent and stable democratic system. But as more details were revealed, it was made clear that this would not be the case.
The proposed changes to the Russian Constitution were due to be put to a public vote originally scheduled for 22 April 2020, the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday. However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the referendum was postponed and a date has not been announced as of the date of publication. The importance of the referendum is questionable; under the constitution, amendments require only the Duma’s assent, but Putin requested a vote to legitimise the changes. Russian polling suggests a strong lead in support of the changes, which will give Putin a triumphant victory, but polling conducted by the independent Levada Centre indicates a far closer result and even a split decision on whether Putin should continue to rule Russia after his current term expires in 2024.
Ultimately, the title Putin holds after 2024 is inconsequential. It doesn’t matter if he remains as President in a role with no new term limits, or moves back to Prime Minister with expanded power and a rubber stamp Duma. It doesn’t matter if he creates a new role or even if he crowns himself Tsar. For as long as he lives, for better or for worse, Putin will almost certainly wield power in Russia, barring massive social or political upheaval. There is one concern, however. In the usual transition to a more powerful role, leaders would tend to move away from legislative and towards executive methods. If Putin is going to become Prime Minister as these changes would suggest, then it represents a significant caveat to his authority, which will now depend on maintaining his support in the regions.
Most political opposition to Putin comes from the increasingly international cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, together representing about twelve percent of the Russian population. Putin’s control of the government, therefore, comes from the regions, but the statistical tie discovered by the Levada Centre on whether or not Putin should remain in office suggests that his hold is not as strong as it might seem, and that transitioning to a role that is more dependent on maintaining an iron grip on parliament could be a risky move. Nevertheless, the chances of a democratic upheaval are unlikely, though the downstream effects of the Coronavirus pandemic are nearly impossible to predict. But at the same time, Putin’s approval rating has fallen to just over 60%; right where it was before the annexation of Crimea.
When considering Russia’s future leadership, I had long operated under the assumption that when Putin finished his fourth term, there would be a hand-picked successor in line to inherit the title, just as there was in 2008 when Medvedev was elected. The working theory was that the successor was Sergei Sobyanin, the current Mayor of Moscow. A Putin loyalist, he would be well-positioned electorally, having not only the support of the regions, but also having done much to make Moscow a modern, cosmopolitan, 21st century city. But these new proposed changes suggest that something unexpected has happened within the apparatus of Putin’s sphere. It is possible that Sobyanin, or whoever else might have been the chosen successor, declined the offer or made himself somehow ineligible for the post, and Putin is concerned that no successor would be either willing to play the game or able to play it well enough to suit Putin’s demands.
An alternate hypothesis is that this is a further step on the road of Russian “sovereign democracy”; the ideal that the government of Russia should not be influenced from outside Russia. Though a sensible policy at first glance, it more readily means that nationalism will be increasingly emphasised and the Russian Orthodox Church will continue its close coordination with the Kremlin. Federalism will be diminished in the Russian Federation amid an increased consolidation of power at the top. Russia will continue to maintain its geopolitical stance as an ally of China against the West, while continuing to test the European and American global presence, and will continue to subvert democratic processes globally. And the Russians, now facing over a third of a century of Putin in power, will continue to wonder when they will see a time after Putin.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Masha Gessen)
- In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones (Nina Khrushcheva & Jeffrey Tayler)
- The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Steven Lee Myers)
- Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West (Catherine Belton)
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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Illinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Photo credit: Kremlin photo