20 years under Putin: a timeline

On March 16, Russia’s Constitutional Court approved the proposed amendments to the Constitution, clearing the way for Vladimir Putin to stay in power beyond 2024, with the upcoming referendum likely being a mere formality. The swiftness of the process signals that legitimacy through adherence to formal rules no longer matters to Putin, and, perhaps, never did.

 

Last week, Vladimir Putin agreed to “reset” his presidential term limits. Photo: kremlin.ru  

 

Last week, Vladimir Putin ended much of the speculation about his post-2024 political future by endorsing a plan to “zero out” existing presidential term limits. The announcement itself was an excellent piece of political theatre: as the State Duma met for a second reading of the proposal for constitutional reforms, United Russia deputy and first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova suggested that parliament consider adding an amendment that would either eliminate presidential term limits altogether or “reset” the incumbent’s term limits. The speaker of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, reacted to the news by pausing the debate to consult with party leaders, and then invited Putin to address the parliament. Putin showed up less than an hour later—which is unusually punctual for a leader known to keep people waiting for hours even at scheduled meetings—with a prepared speech in which he dismissed the idea of abolishing term limits altogether but endorsed a plan that would allow him to run for president again in 2024. 

Putin’s justification for endorsing this plan was the need for stability. Handover of political power is theoretically important, according to the president, but only when a country is mature, stable, less vulnerable, and more powerful. Russia may achieve all this in generations to come, perhaps over the course of the next 30 to 50 years, but is falling short at present. And so the man who has not managed to stabilize Russia enough to withstand a transition of political power over the last 20 years is possibly going to attempt to achieve the same goal during the next 16.

I say “possibly” because Putin did not formally announce his intention to run again for president during the speech. He simply endorsed the idea that “any person, any citizen, including the current president” should not be barred from taking part in future presidential elections. But Putin does not need to announce his intention explicitly in order for the system to understand the message.

Until last week, the watchword for many analysts and Russia-watchers was “maneuverability.” No one thought that Putin would sail into the sunset at the end of his fourth term as president in 2024. But the process of constitutional reform that was begun in January suggested that he was creating as much uncertainty about his future plans and as many pathways forward as possible. The options included heading the Security Council or the Federation Council or United Russia. Or he could have been priming the presidency for a powerful successor or rebalancing political power between different institutions so that no single person could occupy the most important office. The uncertainty helped Putin stave off becoming a lame duck and therefore facilitated continued control over the elite. Statements by many top officials, including Putin, about the necessity for a change at the top, the inadvisability of a dual power arrangement, and the disinterest of Putin in staying on as president, added fuel to theories of “strategic uncertainty” over the last six weeks. 

And then, just like that, Putin significantly diminished that uncertainty by highlighting the most likely path forward for himself: running for president again. Putin avoided becoming a lame duck not in a drawn-out process pitting the different options against each other, but through a snap decision that demonstrated the key feature of Russia’s political system: Putin is the crucial decider and veto player.

Putin’s announcement also suggested that the Kremlin was no longer concerned (if it had ever been) with managing public opinion. Early on, there seemed to be an acute need to avoid a public backlash to the reforms which would be subject to a nationwide vote. Polls from January showed that 32 percent of Russians wanted Putin to exit public life and that nearly half (47 percent) suspected that the constitutional reforms (as announced in January before Putin’s most recent speech) were a way for Putin to secure his stay in power. The Kremlin, which is notoriously “obsessed with ratings,” quickly launched a series of proposed amendments designed to generate public good will. These included defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, increasing material support for citizens, emphasizing nationalism and sovereignty, and constitutionally enshrining “faith in God.” Russians were expected to overlook reforms that strengthened the super-presidential system and focus on the promotion of “traditional values” or the promise of material benefits. 

Last week, Putin showed that the formal rules can be amended as needed to reflect informal (read: actual) political dynamics.

Many, including myself, thought that the Kremlin had taken to heart the lessons of 2011-2012, when massive waves of anti-regime protests exploded all over Russia after a fraudulent parliamentary election and the Putin-Medvedev “deal” to switch executive political posts. Even if the end goal of the constitutional reforms was to empower to Putin retain political control, the Kremlin seemed to be making every effort to apply as much window-dressing as possible. 

It looks now as though concerns about how the reforms appear—their perceived legitimacy in the eyes of citizens—are lower than many analysts and experts thought. Putin’s announcement last week shows that upholding basic institutions and following the rules do not matter as much as we expected, and maybe never did.

Russia is an electoral (or competitive) authoritarian regime, which means that it adheres to some basic principles of democracy—especially the primacy of multi-party elections as the only legitimate road to political power—while employing authoritarian practices. Lucan Way, Steven Levitsky, and Andreas Schedler defined the concept over a decade ago when they noted the global emergence of countries that had adopted elections but failed to democratize. In practice, this type of regime has meant that Russia’s institutions—such as elections—remain free and fair on paper while authorities utilize their power and resources to tip the scales so that the regime always wins. Obviously, competing under these conditions is incredibly difficult, as is demonstrated time and again in Russia when opposition forces cannot decide whether or how to participate in national, regional, or even local elections. The choice between electoral boycotts and strategic voting is a perennial one faced by Russian oppositionists who have to compete on an uneven playing field.

On the local level, where I’ve done most of my recent research, the rules surrounding elections matter, and their violation is widely felt. Independent local candidates can staunchly adhere to the law as written in order to elbow their way into political contests, and electoral commissions risk public outrage when they disregard the rules. This summer in Moscow, over 60,000 people came out to protest against exactly this sort of violation of the formal rules. Thousands of people risked detention and criminal charges to insist that the rules do matter. 

The Kremlin and Putin have also made much of the importance of formal rules, even as they have devised methods to skirt them. Putin chose to become prime minister for a term in 2008 instead of altering the constitution to allow him to remain president. It was Medvedev and not Putin who extended the presidential term from four to six years. Rationalizing the legal system was a hallmark of Putin’s first two terms as president.

Last week, however, Putin showed that the formal rules can be amended as needed to reflect informal (read: actual) political dynamics. And this means that the rules don’t matter, not nearly as much as I—and many others—had assumed they did. In the end, Putin signaled his intention to remain in power using the bluntest tool available to him: a constitutional reform that wiped the board clean and paved the way for him to remain president. J. Paul Goode had it right back in January when he warned people not to get too excited about the potential of the constitutional reforms to reshape the political landscape in Russia, asking: “When have any formal institutional reforms implemented during the Putin era resulted in a meaningful change in the structure of political power?” It’s clear now that Russia’s political institutions serve the existing power holders and that status quo, rather than political transformation, is the order of the day.

 

* Yana Gorokhovskaia is a political scientist researching civil society and local politics in Russia. From 2016 to 2019, she was a postdoctoral scholar in Russian Politics at the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.  

Russia under Putin

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