20 years under Putin: a timeline

In his January 15 address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin revealed large-scale plans for constitutional reform, essentially for the transit of power beyond 2024, when his current, fourth (de-facto fifth) term is set to expire. Hours after Putin’s speech, the Russian government resigned and the name of a new prime minister was announced. Many of the fundamentals of this power overhaul still remain unknown, but there might be reason to be optimistic in the long run.


Putin's address to the Federal Assembly. Photo: kremlin.ru.


Predictions that Putin’s “state of the union” would be the usual boring affair were upset on Wednesday by the announcement of proposals for extensive constitutional reforms, followed by the resignation of the prime minister and his entire cabinet, and the nomination of a new prime minister. In the aftermath of one of the most politically turbulent days in recent history, many questions remain, but it is becoming abundantly clear that Putin will not seek to hold onto the presidency after 2024.

Few people inside or outside of Russia thought that Putin would leave the Russian political scene in 2024. But his ability to continue leading the country as the top executive was constrained by the current constitution that limits presidents to two consecutive terms. In 2008, this issue was resolved when Putin and Dmitri Medvedev switched positions for a term in what was dubbed a rokirovka or castling—a chess maneuver whereby the king switches places with a rook for protection. Many now think that the switch back between president and prime minister, announced casually to the public as a foregone conclusion in the fall of 2011, contributed to the widespread anti-regime protests that broke out that winter. In light of that experience, rokirovka 2.0 seemed an unlikely scenario for 2024.

If the constitutional rules could not be skirted as they had been in the past, they needed to be changed. One option would be to eliminate presidential term limits all together à la Belarus, or to create another super-executive position—such as “Leader of the Nation”—à la Kazakhstan. While theoretically possible, both options were a poor fit for the Russian political scene, where the fiction of legitimate formal institutions has been strongly maintained by the regime.

A new option for Putin began to gain traction among analysts and Russia-watchers recently: perhaps Putin would opt to reshape the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches making room for himself in a leadership position outside of the presidency. Putin added fuel to this speculation at his end-of-the-year press conference in December, during which he announced that he was not opposed to dropping the word “consecutive” from the description of presidential term limits. To many observers, this signaled that Putin intended to weaken the office of the president on his way out the door.

On Wednesday, the plan for institutional reform became significantly clearer. In the last thirteen minutes of his address, which had, up until that point, focused on reliable talking points such as battling demographic decline, providing more support for young children, reducing poverty, improving the medical system, and maintaining a business-friendly climate for investors, Putin announced a series of constitutional reforms. They included expanding the power of the Duma to appoint and approve the prime minister, cabinet ministers, deputy minister, and ministers, formally enshrining the role of the State Council in the constitution, allowing the president to initiate legal reviews by the Constitutional Court of federal laws, and participating in the review of judges from the Supreme and Constitutional Courts. This mix of reforms, along with restrictions on residency and citizenship for politicians and bureaucrats, and a new presidential term limit mean that Putin envisions a post-himself Russia with an altered presidency and a more empowered Duma. There is no doubt that he will remain an important player, possibly as the head of a souped-up State Council, which has been an advisory body for twenty years but will now become a governing body. This would make Russia’s system resemble the Chinese one, where the State Council anchors one of the three branches of government, along with the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army.

With these changes, Putin has clearly signaled his intention to remain Russia’s most consequential political actor for some time to come. This is important not only to prevent him from appearing as a lame duck for the next four years, but to maintain the overall stability of the political system, which is underpinned by patron-client relationships and personal networks. When political systems based on personal ties are deprived of a clear patron, the ensuing competition and uncertainty within the elite can lead to system-wide collapse. The lesson of the second- and third-wave authoritarian breakdowns of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the Color Revolutions and the Arab Spring, is that a nondemocratic system can withstand mass protests as long as the elite is unified, but if that elite is fractured and mutinous, it almost always leads to political turnover. In announcing these reforms, Putin has communicated that he intends to maintain the political system, guiding it from a different post after 2024.

And yet, despite Putin’s clear intention to maintain the system, these changes—the rebalancing of powers between the Duma and the executive—may have long-term positive effects. Yeltsin’s 1993 constitution will be significantly altered, and some of the core elements of the super-presidential framework will be changed in order to invest more powers in parliament. For now, the Duma is a rubberstamp institution whose members mainly engage in lobbying and do little policymaking and even less constituent representation. If the Duma becomes a meaningful institution with real governing authority, competition to be a member will increase. Electoral competition does not automatically lead to democracy, but it can facilitate political plurality. And political plurality, as political scientist Lucan Way has argued, makes it much more difficult for any single actor to impose authoritarian rule. Moreover, political “plurality by default” can happen independently from any democratic spirit of the participants. It does not require democratic reformers.

Furthermore, political competition may help to genuinely engage Russian voters. There will be incentives to build strong political parties to compete in elections. Russians have already demonstrated an appreciation for genuine electoral campaigns. This past summer, thousands protested the disqualification of independent candidates from Moscow’s city council elections. These candidates were able to reach and engage with voters through door-to-door, grassroots campaigns.

The system built by Putin over the last twenty years gradually stripped Russia’s politics of all elements of a genuine democracy by restricting political parties, creating a “power vertical,” and reducing political office to a money-making opportunity. It created a largely apolitical population disengaged from everyday politics. The process in reverse, one that begins by empowering parliament, may help to recreate a civic spirit. People need, as political scientist Milan Svolik has suggested, to “learn to love democracy”—a process that takes time and is facilitated by political competition which produces better politicians. 

While there is reason to be optimistic in the long run, in the short term, these proposed changes have made the 2021 Duma elections even more crucial for Putin’s survival. United Russia must overcome its unpopularity to gain a majority in parliament and help Putin install the next prime minister who will oversee the former’s transition from the presidency. If the party of power fails, Putin’s carefully laid plan for political transformation may become unachievable.