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The president's needs Experts debate if Russia's constitutional reforms are really just a scheme to keep Vladimir Putin in power until 2036

Source: Meduza
Yuri Kochetkov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA
Meduza originally published these interviews in Russian on March 10.

Pending the results of a nationwide plebiscite now scheduled in mid-April, Russia is close to adopting new constitutional amendments that would “zero out” Vladimir Putin's term clock, allowing him to run for re-election twice more, potentially extending his presidency to 2036. Meduza asked a group of experts if Putin planned in advance to include a constitutional exception for his presidency, and if so why did he come up with such a complex way of retaining power?

Abbas Gallyamov 

Political scientist and political strategist

It’s a flood of information — numerous controversial amendments about family, God and so forth, trips to the regions (where someone always asks Putin to remain president forever) and other newsflashes connected to changes to the Constitution. It was all necessary to satisfy the public’s demand for change, and in order to show that their opinion has meaning; that they are seemingly being consulted. This is a kind of game in the reforms. You claim there’s stagnation? We don’t have stagnation, here are the reforms. You claim we don’t have democracy? No, we are consulting with the people on key questions. [They’re playing] a game with public opinion. [Putin] can’t just come out and say: “I’m going to stay.” It’s too crude. Putin likes to play elegantly, although he doesn’t succeed, because “the real thing” breaks through all of the empty talk he creates and gouges your eyes anyways.

I am not sure that he has decided definitively to stay. I think he came up with the bit about the Constitutional Court in order to put the situation on hold; so that none of his colleagues could write him off; in order to keep the threat that he is staying looming over them until the end, so that everyone will be loyal to him personally and not to some other successor. This could also be an element of the game. In the case of Putin, who principally just propagates disinformation, one generally can’t be sure of anything. He puts out all the possible scenarios at the same time, he approves of everything, and then he makes a decision at the last moment so that everyone is shocked and nobody understands anything.

This is the kind of style that brought him success, but now it has stopped working. Before, he was the president of hope, and society associated him with the idea that the situation would improve. Back then, all of the ambiguity was interpreted in his favor. Now, even for his supporters he is no longer the president of hope, instead he’s the president of fear that things will possibly get worse. In this situation, all of the ambiguity is no longer interpreted in his favor, it’s the opposite. Everyone thinks: “Does he himself understand what he’s doing? Has he gone out of his mind?” These interpretations begin to dominate. But he’s true to his style because he’s detached from reality and mistakenly thinks that the ambiguity is earning him dividends. 

Ekaterina Schulmann

Political scientist and associate professor at the Institute for Social Sciences, RANEPA

There is no well-thought-out plan, what we are seeing is a flood of improvisation from different actors. An aging political system wants to minimize its risks. But this desire creates new risks: they sewed it up here and it tore there. It seemed like they came up with a popular vote, but it turned out that no one wanted to go to it. They thought up new amendments, but it turned out that they are antagonizing a segment of the voters. They seemed to say that there needs to be a change of power, but apparently this began to foment unrest. This means that they need to create the feeling of stability.  

What happened today [on March 10] in the State Duma looks like the lawmaking of United Russia deputies, because snap elections are in their interests. Everyone was concentrated on zeroing the [presidential] terms, but all morning the leadership of United Russia was saying that holding parliamentary elections this year would be the right thing to do. They were preparing for this, they planned the primaries for May. And they decided to confront the Presidential Administration with a fait accompli and have Putin make a nice correction about the zeroing of terms. But the president came in and said that no, this will not happen. He also explicitly rejected the limitation on the number of terms, saying that the amendments will be adopted in the distant future, so I don’t think that the Constitutional Court decision was foreseen long in advance. And most importantly, having the right to run does not mean you are obligated to do so.

For a non-democracy, the transfer period is always nerve-racking. They don’t know how to handle it and make things up. They need to preserve uncertainty, but not so strongly that the political elite trample each other as they rush about. The talk about constitutional amendments as the president’s political last will and testament has been rebuffed. Putin’s most important phrase today was the last one: we will work until 2024 and then we will see.

The other side of what is happening is that it’s much easier to mobilize voters against zeroing, than against everything else that is contained in these amendments. This is a potential risk. We’re seeing that the desire to minimize risks creates new risks, and this is the curse of autocracy.    

Gleb Pavlovsky

Political strategist

It’s a mistake to think that the amendments regarding family, children, and God were simply introduced in the name of prolonging Putin’s power. This could have been done in a huge number of other ways. In this case, we’re talking about replacing one government with another government (government alpha with government beta). In government alpha, the question of Putin leaving his post is an important, standard question, and in government beta, the question of Putin leaving is unimportant. In [beta], he is found inside the entire network of institutions that are interlaced with each other: The State Council, the administration, the government. In this government, Putin will never leave.  

But this doesn’t mean that he told you today that in 2024 he will run in the elections. He did not say that. He intentionally created an ambiguous situation — another one — because this is his policy. For reasons unknown, he thinks that the ideal management strategy is to keep the managerial class, the establishment and the political elite in a state of confusion, even more so than the population. In 2024, he might simply refrain from running in the elections. He is looking at things differently: saying that there are so many important events before 2024 that something will show him the right tactic. He’s already acted this way for 20 years, so why do you think that he will change this methodology now? He won’t change it. If you think that you received even one byte of relevant information from him today about his intentions, you are mistaken. 

Of course, all of this was planned in advance, but probably not in the way it panned out. What happened was [Putin’s] improvisation; he prepared part of it with the [state] apparatus and the other part was kept in secret. He triggered the avalanche himself, and neither he nor the apparatus could control it. Therefore, he went with the flow and some lobbyists told him something. I don’t think it was all from inside his head — more likely it was born after some kind of brainstorming.  

As a development model, this looks a bit like perestroika: the first person triggers a process, which they don’t know how to control and they aren’t really prepared for, but their position is strengthened because everyone else understands even less [than they do] and are busy trying to find their place in this process.

Alexander Baunov

Political scientist and editor-in-Chief of Carnegie.ru 

It appears to us that Putin has simply extended [his own] authority. From our perspective, it seems like an extension of authority because we know that he will win in any new elections and it cannot be any other way. But to him it seems like he acted very subtly and cunningly — that he not only extended his authority but also gave himself the opportunity to participate in [future] elections. It may seem to him that this approach is rather subtle. Although he is indifferent to the pro-government segments of society, being critical nevertheless seems rude.

A simple extension is an unsophisticated path for him. Apparently, it seems to him and his circle that this is too obvious and, more importantly, [it] would bring down the system. If you can simply receive an extension of authority, it means that the next president can do the same: from now on, all presidents will come out and demand this be put to a referendum. So, he made an exception for himself by limiting all of his successors to using this option. But we understand that in this case there are no guarantees that [his] successors will not make the same kind of exceptions for themselves. 

It’s not true that the mass voter would have reacted enthusiastically to a simple extension. Of course, that’s why Putin needs all of the other amendments, in order for people to come out and vote for a not-so coherent construct. Putin wanted to weigh down this entire construct with a bunch of amendments — socialist ones, patriotic ones and even liberal ones — all for the sake of getting an opportunity to be re-elected.

It seems to me that Putin was headed towards this from the very beginning, but he had some sort of “audition” for projects. I think that these options all had their own working groups or, at the very least, their own developers, and Putin was thinking about the State Council, as well as the post of prime minister. But he has [had] an unpleasant experience with tandem democracy, during which the elite were split. In the mind of the Kremlin, the 2011-2012 protests are not a consequence of Putin’s return. It was the elite being divided [between] those who wanted Medvedev to stay and those who wanted Putin to return, and all of this destabilized the country. [But] Putin isn’t quitting the presidency for just any post; a space would appear for a [second center of power], around which its own party would take shape. This is what they were afraid of and decided to avoid. 

Mikhail Vinogradov

President of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation

The main intrigue is [whether] this is all one cunning plan or one of [many] cunning plans that are succeeding one another. But there are several points that contradict the idea that Putin had all of this in mind from the very beginning, starting with Medvedev’s resignation, which was not necessary for such a scenario, and ending with putting forward the idea (with the participation of the authorities) that this is Putin’s political legacy. There is a certain dynamic. We see, for example, that at the beginning Putin suggested a weakening of presidential power, but then they returned to the idea of a strong president. Apparently, like in 2011, Putin’s return to the presidential post was not a foregone conclusion. Then as now, it was one of the options.

A whole series of events did not fit the idea of predetermination. For example, the FOM [Public Opinion Foundation] stopped publishing Putin’s weekly electoral ratings, under the pretext that he will not be elected anyway. There wasn’t any kind of powerful campaign to popularize Putin as the national leader from January to March. Nevertheless, opinion polls showed that the majority of respondents perceived the amendments to the Constitution as an instrument for keeping Putin in power.

The debatable question is whether the drama of “zeroing” [will be] successful, because it runs the risks of polarizing society. These risks are similar to those that materialized in 2011, when for one group of voters, Putin’s return looked like a decision that was made behind their backs.

Tatyana Stanovaya

Head of the analytical company “R. Politik” (Reality of Russian Politics) 

I think Putin had this kind of plan in mind from the beginning, but didn’t tell anyone about it, including the head of his administration. In general, the constitutional reform that Putin announced in January created a feeling that something was left unsaid. Something bigger was behind this. It seemed strange that Putin made too many conciliatory gestures. It created a feeling of demobilization that Putin is leaving, there will be a successor, and that the transition [of power] had started.

Omission is his form of bribery. When Putin makes a lot of gestures that are expected of him, he doesn’t reveal what he needs in return. But now we understand.

Updating the Constitution was his dream, so that a Putin Constitution will go down in history, rather than a Yeltsin [Constitution]. This is a matter of ambition, which is not directly linked to [his] intention to run in 2024. But he also has the feeling that after everything he has done for the country, he has earned the right to be elected again.

Transcribed by Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Eilish Hart