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The rumored appointment of a Kiriyenko associate to Russia’s State Council fuels speculation that Putin could sidestep the presidency to remain in power after 2024

Meduza
23:59, 18 june 2018

The most recent State Council meeting, April 5, 2018

Alexander Zemlyanichenko / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Several Russian news outlets have reported that Alexander Kharichev could take over as head of the State Council’s operations office. Kharichev is considered a close associate of Sergey Kiriyenko, who oversees the Kremlin’s domestic policy. Kiriyenko’s authority has grown in the Putin administration since he orchestrated the president’s successful re-election this March, and some experts now believe that he has been tasked with preparing options to keep Putin in power after 2024, when the president's current term expires. The State Council could play an important role in this scheme, if Putin were to take charge of the group and make it Russia’s most powerful government agency. Meduza reviews what the State Council is and how these rumors about its future got started.

What’s the story with Russia’s State Council?

The establishment of the State Council was one of Vladimir Putin’s first administrative reforms after assuming the presidency. He was first elected in March 2000, and on May 17 that year he announced a new procedure for the formation of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian Parliament). In the 1990s, the Federation Council was made up of elected governors and the heads of regional legislative assemblies who often blocked legislation sponsored by the government and the Kremlin. After Putin’s restructuring, they could only send their representatives to Moscow.

The castration of the Federation Council didn’t thrill Russia’s regional leaders, but they quickly settled on a compromise. “We still need some kind of group under the president, for example, a council made up of regional heads,” said then Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev. On September 1, 2000, Putin signed an executive order creating the State Council, whose members included regional leaders from across the country.

The council’s first meeting took place roughly two months later, on November 22, and the agenda addressed “the strategic development of the state” over the next 10 years. Putin said the council should become Russia’s “only platform” for discussions about national political strategy.

The Kremlin was selected as the meeting place for the State Council. On the one hand, it was a symbolic demonstration of the group’s higher status relative to the Federation Council on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. On the other hand, however, it was just another reminder that Russia’s governors were only guests at the presidential residence. In 2008, not long after he was elected president, Dmitry Medvedev created a separate department in his administration for managing the State Council’s operations.

What does the State Council actually do?

In reality, the State Council is only a deliberative body without any real authority. Putin’s executive order establishing the council makes this clear, and the Kremlin has emphasized the council's advisory status since the very beginning, when governors still hoped to play a special role in Russian federal politics. For example, when the State Council discussed the new national anthem, Putin’s press service dismissed the governors’ opinions, saying they were no more important than the views of any ordinary citizen.

The Russian Constitution doesn’t mention the State Council, whose functions are regulated by executive decrees. The council’s main task is to facilitate the “realization of the head of state’s authority on issues of ensuring the coordinated functioning and interaction of state agencies.”

Members of the State Council also discuss “issues of special significance” to the state infrastructure and relations between Russia’s center and regions, draft legislation, draft budgets, and “core personnel policy issues.” In the end, however, the group is only able to “make necessary proposals to the president.” In 2005, when Russia abolished direct gubernatorial elections, the State Council’s influence shrunk even further.

In the early years, governors made an extra effort not to miss State Council meetings. According to the newspaper Kommersant, even Chukotka’s governor, oligarch Roman Abramovich (who led the region from 2001 until 2008, rarely spending much time in Russia), would fly in for meetings. Over time, the State Council convened less and less often: in 2001, its members gathered four times, but the group has met just twice a year since 2015.

Are there only governors on the State Council?

No, but the group’s other members don’t make it any more influential.

In 2007, Vladimir Putin tweaked the State Council, establishing an advisory commission within its infrastructure, staffed by “persons with experience in public activities.” Unlike the regional heads on the council, these individuals are salaried personnel.

It was assumed that this commission could include, for example, famous scientists, but in practice its seats have gone only to a few former governors.

In 2012, after winning a third presidential race and returning to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin packed the State Council with even more members, adding the heads of all political parties with representation in the State Duma and their authorized representatives in the federal districts. Some political experts believe these reforms only further weakened the State Council’s authority, stripping regional heads of a platform where they had exclusive presidential access.

Why doesn’t the Kremlin simply dissolve the State Council?

We don’t know, but many observers believe Putin hasn’t kept it around for nothing. Speculation that he would leave the presidency for the State Council, while shifting the country’s real power to that group, first emerged at the end of Putin’s second term. Given Putin’s repeated promises not to amend the Constitution’s limit on two consecutive terms, the State Council — which isn’t even mentioned in the Constitution — seemed like a possible and suitable exit strategy.

In 2016, the political analyst Valery Solovei (known for his outlandish predictions) claimed that Putin might refuse to run for re-election in 2018 and instead take over the State Council, which would inherit the government’s real decision-making powers, reducing the presidency to a figurehead. When Putin did run and win a fourth presidential campaign, Solovei declared that the plan involving the State Council has merely been postponed.

Could federal decision making really “migrate” to the State Council?

We don’t know for certain, but there are reasons to doubt that it could. Putin frequently argues that Russia’s political norms largely mirror the conventions in more developed countries. In a recent interview with the Austrian television station ORF, the president emphasized once again that he’s led Russia for the past 18 years without violating the letter of the country's laws and he’s never served more than two presidential terms “in a row.”

On the other hand, Putin can look to Xi Jinping in China, where the Communist Party decided this spring, for the first time since Mao Zedong, to lift term limits on general secretaries, effectively allowing Xi to rule for life. For the Russian authorities, China’s example is significant.

Kazakhstan, one of the former Soviet Union’s stablest regimes in Eurasia today, is also no stranger to constitutional tinkering. First, the country’s longtime leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, sharply reduced the president’s authorities, putting the parliament in charge of the government ministries. These reforms only apply to the next president, however, and Nazarbayev has secured his status as the “national leader.” He’s also guaranteed a lifetime seat as chairman of Kazakhstan’s National Security Council. Formally, this purely deliberative body differs little from Russia’s State Council.

Putin could decide to go the Chinese or Kazah route, becoming a lifelong ruler of Russia’s State Council and the informal head of the Russian government. This scheme would still require some fiddling with the Constitution, however: at a minimum, the office of the president would need to lose certain authorities. In this event, the task of reorganizing the State Council would likely fall to the Kremlin’s State Council operations office.

Immediately after winning a fourth presidential term, Vladimir Putin was cautious when commenting on possible constitutional reforms, saying there are no such plans “at the present day.” For the time being, there is still no convincing evidence that the Kremlin is thinking precisely about a convoluted maneuver involving the State Council in 2024.

Text by Dmitry Kartsev, translation by Kevin Rothrock