The risks of Constitutional Putinism The pursuit of political stability is leading Russia to a more centralized and brittle form of government
Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya warns that reforms recently adopted by the State Duma to further the centralization of power in Russia’s federal government could endanger the entire political system by pinning too much on the presidency and the Kremlin’s “subjective and closed insider logic.” “Constitutional Putinism” is supposed to weed out remnants of the destabilizing “opportunism” elevated in Russia’s “Yeltsin Constitution,” Stanovaya argues in a recent essay for the Carnegie Moscow Center, but Putinism could prove to be even more prone to opportunism if it is incapable of accommodating the multiple power centers that would emerge in a serious political crisis (for example, the loss of United Russia’s parliamentary monopoly or a severe decline in the president’s popularity).
In redesigning much of the relationship between Russia’s central and regional governments, many of the Kremlin’s latest political reforms are more meaningful even than last year’s constitutional amendments, argues political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya. The public administration draft law, she says, isn’t just a declaration of the “president’s supremacy”; it significantly expands presidential prerogatives relative to both governors and regional parliaments, allowing the president to interfere directly in their work more than is formally possible now.
In democratic terms, this effectively gives the Kremlin a veto on voters’ choices in regional politics. After all, when governors need the central government’s approval for their own cabinet appointments, what really is the point of direct gubernatorial elections? The new reforms will expand Moscow’s command over regional legislatures, as well, requiring the consent of the State Council (which the presidential administration controls) for revisions to a long and classified list of issues designated as the “joint jurisdiction” of Russia’s central and regional governments.
The public administration legislation does make some inconsequential concessions on legislative review procedures, and it grants a few new powers to governors, but these reforms come at the expense of Russia’s municipal authorities, duplicating at the gubernatorial level some of the “executive vertical” prerogatives granted to the president. This consolidation of the power vertical will also reduce the possibilities for political opposition within the system and tie up mayors and town councils in Moscow’s deadlock. Stanovaya calls this “the executive branch’s blitzkrieg against local government.”
Federal lawmakers did not compromise on the abolition of the presidential titles in regional governments, continuing Moscow’s conflict with Tatarstan, where Russia’s last regional “president” still holds office. Stanovaya points out that the new public administration law would empower Tatarstan’s attorney general to initiate a constitutional review within the republic to change the regional leader’s title, though abolishing the presidency even in name would require a popular referendum that is “doomed to fail” among local voters, says Stanovaya.
The justifications for these changes to Russian federalism are based on the same rationale that fueled constitutional reforms to allow Vladimir Putin to seek another two presidential terms: political stability. Ever the Kremlin’s guiding star, the pursuit of stability motivated the introduction of gubernatorial term limits in 2015. In six years, however, the Putin administration has replaced Russia’s “governor-politicians” with “governor-technocrats,” obviating the need to treat regional heads as potential rivals, and term limits have become a burden on the Kremlin.
For all its apparent vigor, this more centralized federal government is “strong and unified” today, says Stanovaya, but it becomes a “monstrously dangerous” system, the moment Russia has a politically weak head of state.