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The transfer of power begins A step-by-step guide to Vladimir Putin’s address on the future of the Russian government

Source: Meduza
Anton Vaganov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

In his annual address to the Federal Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a radical series of constitutional reforms. His proposals would expand the role of the State Council (which the Russian Constitution in its current form does not mention) as well as those of the parliament and the prime minster. The president also proposed further limiting Russian citizens’ abilities to seek human rights protections through international courts and agreements. Putin’s own role in the federal government’s newly planned structure is still unclear, but it appears likely that his path will parallel that of Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, who left the presidency in March 2019 while retaining much of the influence he held in that role.

Russia’s parliament will be stronger, but that won’t make Russia a parliamentary republic

What Putin said: The State Duma’s authority will be expanded. Russia’s lower house of parliament will not only confirm the prime minister, as it does now; it will also confirm every vice premier and minister the head of government appoints. In 2019, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin came forward with a similar set of proposals for the Duma’s powers. Following the State Duma’s votes, Putin suggested, the president should be obligated to approve any confirmed candidates without a veto power. Meanwhile, under the new proposals, the president would have to consult with the Federation Council before making appointments to leading security positions or choosing regional prosecutors. Senators may also receive the ability to remove Constitutional Court justices from power.

What it means: Political scientist Alexey Makarkin believes that none of this will turn Russia into a parliamentary republic. “A superpresidential republic is turning into one that’s merely presidential,” he suggested. A source close to the president’s administration who is familiar with the discussions surrounding the reforms told Meduza that the State Duma’s role will not be significantly strengthened at all. “Some set of decisions, including financial decisions, might be transferred to the State Council, so it [the State Duma] won’t be such a strong, independent body, and the deputies’ influence won’t get any stronger, either,” he said.

According to another political scientist, Grigory Golosov, parliamentarians might start seeing more personal lobbying opportunities when ministers are appointed, but those appointments still won’t be determined by parliamentary politics. “The parliament’s political role will see almost no changes. They used to confirm the premier; now, they’ll confirm ministers, too. That won’t make Russia a parliamentary republic. In the U.S., the Senate also confirms individual officials, but it’s [still] a presidential republic,” Golosov said by way of example.

“That renunciation happened in a way that favors a model where powers are redistributed among various government bodies. The idea is that some of those powers will go to the Duma, the Federation Council, and maybe the State Council,” Rogov explained. However, he said, that scheme typically relies on the existence of a one-party dictatorship that continues for several decades. If the scheme Putin has suggested follows that tradition, it would contradict the personality-based model of power that he himself has built.

The State Council will become an important, constitutionally recognized body and a likely retirement home for Putin

What Putin said: The President said he wants to see “a drastic elevation of the role of governors in developing and making decisions on the federal level.” The forum where regional government heads work on that level is the State Council. Currently, the Constitution does not account for the State Council’s role in any way. The Kremlin’s website calls the State Council an “advisory body” reporting to the president, who serves as the Council’s chair. Aside from the president, the Council includes the speakers of the State Duma and the Federation Council along with the leaders of every Duma faction, all regional governors, and some former regional governors appointed by the president.

Putin suggested “codifying a corresponding status and role for the State Council in Russia’s Constitution.” He did not specify what that role might be, but he had previously noted that the State Council “has displayed a high level of efficacy, and its working groups provide professional, comprehensive, and high-quality consideration of the issues most important to our citizens and our country.”

What it means: The State Council currently operates as a public forum for discussing policy matters in Putin’s presence, and the individual responsible for the administration’s ongoing work with that forum is Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kirienko. In the last several months, State Council hearings have taken the form of public brainstorming sessions that receive extensive media coverage in state-run and state-controlled sources.

The bureau responsible for the State Council’s logistics is led by Alexander Kharichev, a close ally of Kirienko’s. That bureau doesn’t just manage the Council’s hearings; it runs the selection process for gubernatorial candidates and curates their campaigns.

According to a source close to Putin’s administration, the idea of granting the State Council a higher status and greater powers has been under development for some time, and so far, the predominant assumption has been that Putin should lead the body. That would require not only strengthening the Council’s role but creating a new appointment system for its chair. Currently, the president receives that role ex officio, meaning that Putin’s hold on it is likely temporary given the events of January 15. The presidential administration has not yet produced any specific documents proposing reforms along these lines.

Meduza’s source did emphasize that the Council will not be the country’s highest executive authority: “Its chair will not be more important than the president. The current head of government [Putin] does not plan to preserve the whole breadth of his power, but he does want to influence [government] processes.” Political scientist Alexey Makarkin said the State Council couldn’t become a “new Politburo” for another reason as well: “It’s a body that meets on a non-perpetual basis. [Giving it] new powers won’t change much here: The foundation of the State Council is the governors, and they have to work first and foremost in their own regions.”

Grigory Golosov, however, called the State Council’s new role “one of the most fundamental” changes Putin proposed and believes it may become a political problem. “It will be dangerous if there’s a clause in the Constitution about the State Council that doesn’t designate specific powers. In that case, constitutional law could allow any kind of authority whatsoever to be written into that new body’s role, which could allow Vladimir Putin to hold onto real power,” Golosov hypothesized. Alexey Makarkin said he doesn’t rule out the possibility of Putin occupying some other high-status role as well, such as the chairmanship of a ruling political party.

Thanks to a one-word deletion, Russia’s next president probably won’t be able to serve for more than two terms as Putin has

What Putin said: “The constitutional provision granting that a single individual may not occupy the post of president of the Russian Federation for more than two terms in a row has been under discussion in our society. I don’t believe it’s an essential question, but I do agree,” Putin said in his address. During a December 2019 press conference, he also mentioned that the word podryad, or “in a row,” “could be removable” from the Constitution, leaving any future president to serve no more than two terms, period.

What it means: Putin’s insistence that the question of presidential term limits is not “essential” appears to give Russian society or its lawmakers wiggle room to decide the question themselves. His address also included a note of ambiguity: What does Putin “agree” with, the constitutional clause that includes the word podryad or the public discussion putting that clause in doubt? Despite that lack of clarity on the page, Alexey Makarkin believes there can be no doubt that Putin is openly advocating for the elimination of the “in a row” loophole: “This is a clear limitation on the terms of his successor, whoever that person may be. The successor will work for 12 years at most without using a placeholder like Putin did.”

New residency requirements for presidents threaten to put Khodorkovsky, possibly Navalny, and others out of contention

What Putin said: The Russian president would like for the Constitution to mandate that any future candidate for his current post must have lived on Russian territory for at least 25 years and never held foreign citizenship or a foreign residency permit. As the Constitution now stands, presidential candidates must have lived in Russia for at least 10 years, and there is no provision restricting the presidency based on previous citizenship or residency abroad.

What it means: Among the most prominent Russian political figures who hold foreign residency permits is former oil tycoon and opposition oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has the right to reside in Switzerland. Other political émigrés or aspiring politicians who lived abroad may have similar permits. For example, prominent opposition politician Alexey Navalny studied abroad at Yale and received a student visa granting temporary residency for that purpose. How exactly any new laws will interpret that status is unclear.

“An undesirable candidate wouldn’t be allowed to compete anyway, but now, they’re formalizing the reasons. It’s not as though the situation will change under the next president anyway. Now, though, the limits will be official, and they’ll be secured by a nationwide vote,” Alexey Makarkin suggested. The only open question is how exactly the Russian government plans to demonstrate that a given individual had a foreign residency permit. Current law asks citizens themselves to report their residency documents to the government or face administrative or criminal prosecution.

Dmitry Astakhov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Russians will have less room to appeal to international law in human rights and other disputes

What Putin said: “The demands of international legislation and agreements as well as the decisions of international bodies may be implemented on Russian territory only insofar as they do not accompany limits on human rights and liberties, insofar as they do not contradict our Constitution.”

Chapter One, Article 15, Part Four of the Russian Constitution states, “The collectively accepted principles and norms of international law and the international agreements of the Russian Federation are an integral component of the Russian Federation’s legal system. If the Russian Federation establishes rules that differ from existing law through an international agreement, then the rules of the international agreement will be applied.” Chapter Two, Article 17 indicates that “in the Russian Federation, the rights and freedoms of persons and citizens are guaranteed according to collectively accepted principles of international law and in accordance with the present Constitution.”

What it means: Former Presidential Human Rights Council member and current Higher School of Economics professor Ilya Shablinsky argues that the supremacy of Russian law is already clear in the country’s existing legislation and does not require any constitutional changes. “Among other things, the law regulating the Constitutional Court indicates that norms established in international agreements may be applied only if they do not contradict the Constitution. What’s more, there is also a control mechanism: The Constitutional Court can review international agreements to verify whether they are in line with the Constitution. Recently, the Constitutional Court has even gained the ability to review decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights,” Shablinsky said.

Former Constitutional Court justice Tamara Morshchakova confirmed that legislation outside the Constitution already includes everything Putin proposed where international law is concerned. Only Article 17 of the Constitution, she said, grants international law supremacy in cases involving human rights and liberties. “That article cannot be changed through amendments because it’s in Chapter Two [which is protected from amendment]. For that purpose, a new Constitution would have to be passed,” Morshchakova told Meduza.

A source close to the president’s administration said that officials developed revisions to Article 17 in the fall of 2019. The State Council bureau responsible for constitutional reforms ordered an expert report on the subject from the Institute of Legislation and Comparative Legal Studies. “There were two options: Major changes to the Constitution that would require calling a constitutional assembly, among other changes, or reforms that would be put in place without changing the first two chapters [of the Constitution]. Ultimately, the large-scale option was selected,” Meduza’s source said.

Russia is shaping up to be a lot like Kazakhstan

What Putin said: On this count, nothing specific. However, the president is aiming to expand the State Council’s role much like Nursultan Nazarbayev strengthened the Security Council shortly before he resigned from Kazakhstan’s presidency. Nazarbayev also leads Nur-Otan, the ruling party, and his position as “leader of the nation” (yelbasy) is codified in the country’s Constitution.

What it means: “In Kazakhstan, two blocs have formed in the government’s power structure — the president’s bloc and Nazarbayev’s bloc — and there is friction between them along certain lines,” Central Asia specialist Arkady Dubnov told Meduza. “In my view, the bureaucracy hasn’t fully determined who’s the boss of the house and who will be making the primary decisions. It is clear, though, that the yelbasy handed over the right to make unpopular economic decisions or domestic political decisions to the president wholesale while taking the right to strategic decisions in foreign relations and so on for himself.” Dubnov predicted that, in Russia, “tensions like those are hardly possible” because “the nature of our [Russian] elite is such that it falls before a new boss immediately and absolutely — until it comes to believe that the lion is completely senile.”

Grigory Golosov agreed that a scenario like Kazakhstan’s could become relevant for the Russian government as well. “Putin won’t necessarily leave [the presidency] for the State Council. It could be the Security Council, too. I think he hasn’t decided yet. There’s this concept [in politics] of a “veto player,” somebody who can put a stop to decisions, or decisions can’t be made without their approval. Putin intends to play that role,” he argued.

Belarus could still be unified with Russia, but it’s unlikely

What Putin said: Putin’s address devoted unusually little time to foreign policy and Russia’s international relationships in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

What it means: Not very long ago, the possible unification of Russia and Belarus was a frequent topic of discussion in the Kremlin, where it was considered a viable option to keep the levers of power in Vladimir Putin’s hands. In the fall of 2019, Meduza’s sources in the Putin administration described Belarusian unification as a realistic scenario, and some Russian bureaucrats spoke out publicly to argue for deeper integration between the two countries within the bounds of an existing agreement. Meanwhile, in Belarus, protests emerged in opposition to unification with Russia, and the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, was forced to denounce that possibility.

Kirill Rogov believes that current efforts to reformulate Russia’s system of governance won’t make integration with Belarus impossible down the line: “they could fit the Belarusian scenario into this scheme,” he said. Grigory Golosov, on the other hand, feels certain that such a move is almost impossible after what Lukashenko has said in recent months about preserving the country’s sovereignty. “That exactly the reason that they started solving the 2024 problem through domestic policy,” Golosov concluded.

Analysis by Andrey Pertsev with assistance from Pavel Merzlikin

Editing by Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen