Recent years have shown that the Russian authorities are most comfortable operating in the regime of “special operations” - whether inside Russia or outside. Sudden tactical moves rarely form a consistent and effective strategy. Yet each move - as a rule - achieves its aim: disorienting opponents and returning the advantage to the Kremlin.
On 15 January, Russian citizens witnessed the latest in a long line of these special operations: towards the end of Vladimir Putin’s annual speech to the Federation Council, the president announced his intention to introduce radical changes to the Russian Constitution. The same day, the Russian government resigned, and tax chief Mikhail Mishustin - who even experienced observers of Russian politics had to look up on Wikipedia - was appointed Prime Minister.
Undoubtedly, Putin’s intended constitutional amendments are designed to solve the “problem of 2024” - how both the regime, and Putin personally, will retain power after the 2024 presidential elections. But still, it’s unclear from the president’s words how exactly - and to what timeline - the Kremlin intends to address this issue. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, the game is afoot - but we don’t yet understand what the game and its guiding scenario will be. But just like in Sherlock Holmes, we have a few pieces of evidence, and patterns established by political science can help us interpret them.
The first piece of evidence is the timing. Why did it happen now, when 2024 is still far away? American political scientist Henry Hale writes that the political calendar is significant even under authoritarian regimes, where elections, formally competitive, are hollowed out and no longer guarantee change of power. Indeed, it is precisely around election dates that different elite groups orient their expectations and plans. This is why elections themselves often throw out unpleasant surprises for regimes, whether electorally or on the streets. Despite the apparently iron-clad consensus among Russian elites over Putin, they still have reason to be dissatisfied.
In contrast to Putin’s promises, Russia’s new Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin looks more like a neoliberal technocrat than a populist
For example, the oligarchs are clearly not impressed by sanctions and general problems with business which have been created by the Kremlin’s confrontation with the West. “The interests connected with presidential elections are deeply hidden,” said political technologist Gleb Pavlovsky in connection with the 2018 presidential elections. You could say the same about the interests connected to the 2024 elections. They might be hidden, but they’re there. And it seems the Kremlin understands this and has decided to shuffle the cards early, starting the transition now. Which could mean that the presidential elections will be held early, too - it’s possible that they will be held jointly with parliamentary elections already in 2021.
The second question concerns the transition’s format. The Kremlin has several options: Belarusian (removal of limits on presidential terms and re-election of Putin as president), Kazakh (reserving Putin the post of head of a new institution with unlimited powers, which the Kazakh Security Council became after Nazarbayev joined it), and, finally, Russia-2008 (moving Putin to the post of Prime Minister and elections for his successor, perhaps with a straight repeat of 2008 - a shuffle with Medvedev). For the regime, each of these options has its advantages and shortcomings.
At first glance, Putin’s speech seems to hint at the Kazakhstan scenario (which several media rushed to note). Thus, Putin proposed to write the “status and role” of the State Council, an institution set up in 2000 to compensate the loss of real functions by the Federation Council, into the Constitution. Political scientist Nikolay Petrov has defined the State Council as a “substitute”. That is, a pseudo-institution designed to simulate the activity of a real institution - in this case, the upper chamber of parliament, which thanks to one of Putin’s first reforms stopped, in effect, representing Russia’s regions. (In the same way, the Civic Chamber simulates the role of the Duma, which by the mid-2000s had finally turned into a place where “things are not discussed”.)
Right now, the State Council is a consultative body and deeply peripheral in the Russian political system. But what Putin plans to do with it, he didn’t say in his speech. Perhaps it will be transformed into an analogue of the all-powerful Security Council in Kazakhstan - and then the Kazakh scenario, with Putin as head of the State Council, will look most likely. But perhaps the role of the State Council will be written into the Constitution as a consultative organ without serious powers - and then Putin will need a different position.
This position could be the post of Prime Minister. Once again, Putin’s proposals on strengthening the Duma could be interpreted as a shift to a Premier-Presidential republic in which the government and its head are responsible first and foremost to parliament. In this case, the post of Premier and leader of the ruling party will be prepared for Putin – a modified 2008 scenario.
But if the Constitution keeps the paragraph on dissolving the Duma if it rejects a President’s candidate for Premier on three occasions, then a shift towards presidential power will remain. Confirmation of a candidate for Premier by the Duma, or indeed all Cabinet ministers, will change little. Moreover, according to Putin, “the president should retain the right to define the tasks and priorities of the government”. That is, the president will still play a leading role in domestic policy, not the premier. As with the State Council, the constitutional changes could turn out to be purely cosmetic. Will Putin risk giving away presidential power to someone else - most likely, this time forever?
Several analysts believe that Putin won’t take the risk and, despite initial impressions of his speech, Putin will choose the Belarusian scenario – a life presidency. As Kirill Rogov has noted, the post of president, according to Putin’s speech, will also receive additional powers – for example, the right to remove judges from the Constitutional and Supreme Courts (in agreement with the Federation Council – it will be impossible to talk about an independent judiciary even formally). We can’t rule out that these new powers will be given to Putin, rather than someone else, and that during the “popular vote” on the constitutional amendments a new paragraph will appear on removing the limit on presidential terms. Besides, as Putin has already stated, Russian citizens will vote on all the changes at once, in a “packet” of laws.
Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia-2008? All three options are still available. It’s impossible to exclude any of them completely. There’s one thing that can be said confidently: the transition of power has begun, and the Kremlin has the initiative. But time isn’t on its side. The stagnation of the Russian economy and decline in people’s real incomes continues. The austerity policies of the crisis years, particularly in the social sphere, has allowed the Kremlin to achieve a budget surplus, saving serious funds. Putin accompanied his new constitutional proposals with some generous promises (“maternity capital” payment on the birth of your first child, additional payment on the birth of a second, and a partial mortgage compensation with the third), which suggest that it’s been decided to spend the reserves on social support – but will this help as the general outlook for people is so bleak?
Furthermore, in contrast to Putin’s promises, Russia’s new Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin looks more like a neoliberal technocrat than a populist. As soon as he took up the post, Mishustin announced that he was not planning to re-examine the recent - and highly unpopular - rise in official retirement age, nor introduce a progressive income tax scale. (Russian authorities are fond of talking about “traditional values”. It seems, though, that the flat tax on income – unheard of in developed states – is the only “traditional value” they believe in, as they are prepared to defend it from any attack.) In terms of social policy, Mishustin has so far merely repeated the liberal mantra on the necessity of moving to means-testing, to avoid accidentally spending money on those who don’t need it. With this approach, Mishustin’s cabinet is hardly likely to be more popular than that of his predecessor Medvedev.
Social protests in recent years have gained a new stubbornness and efficacy - the incredibly tough victories at the recent Ekaterinburg church protest and Shies anti-landfill campaign testify to this. Meanwhile, the opposition has learned how to use new political tools - like the “smart voting” strategy, whereby voters were encouraged to vote for candidates most likely to defeat their ruling party rivals. The danger of this strategy for the authorities, particularly in single-seat districts, and United Russia’s low approval rating haven’t gone anywhere. Moreover, against the background of Putin’s proposal to strengthen the role of the Duma, they acquire greater meaning.
More trust in parliament (and regional governors, also mentioned by Putin) means a greater stake on “managed democracy”. However, elections in recent years, which United Russia and its candidates regularly lose despite the way they’re held, says that the system of “managed democracy” has been shaken. No matter how brilliant the tactical combinations used by the Kremlin, they do not cancel the meaning of these long-term factors behind the crisis of Russia’s political system - something deeper than the power transition begun by Putin’s speech.