The first step on a long path to peace in Afghanistan
Vladimir Putin will not be president for life but he is sure to have power
One thing is for sure in Russia. Its next president will have a lot less to do. In his address to the nation this month, Vladimir Putin proposed the most sweeping changes with the Russian constitution in almost three decades. Under the new system, which could go into full effect as early as this year, future Russian presidents will be limited to a total of two terms. Moreover, significant powers would revert to the parliament. The Russian president will focus on security and foreign affairs. It will be a shadow of the office Putin now holds, indicating that whatever problems Russia will face, the prospect of Putin declaring himself president for life is not one of them.
The government, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, has dutifully resigned to make way for the changes. If the new system goes into effect as planned, the next prime minister and government will be selected by the parliament directly. The State Council, a little known office comprised of governors and other high officials, will play a more prominent role in ruling the nation. Medvedev has moved into a newly created deputy role in the Security Council of Russia, which is chaired by Putin. So while the offices may have changed, the deciders are still in power for the moment. Putin is not so much clearing the decks as he is rearranging the furniture.
The new system will also restrict foreign influences on how Russia is run. The clearest example is the final declaration of a trend that has been in the works for some time. The Russian constitution will take precedence over international agreements. The Russian government will be free to ignore the international judgments it disagrees with, whether from the European Court of Human Rights or many other inconvenient lawsuits.
Putin also proposes that the post of president be limited to individuals who have resided in Russia for at least 25 years, and that senior official posts, including judges, ministers, governors, and parliament members, be forbidden to Russians holding dual citizenship or foreign residency permits. Clearly, the new system is reserved for loyal citizens who stay in Russia, not political opponents returning from abroad, or even business elites with a potential escape route and a foreign bank account in hand.
The past year has proven to be among the most difficult for Putin, and for the social and political legitimacy of the system that he built over his last two decades in power. The spectacle of protests in Moscow, along with the harsh crackdown, went viral at home and abroad. The opposition also schemed an innovative strategy to embarrass United Russia by steering the opposition vote to the second ranked challenger no matter the party.
The nuclear accident in the far north region, which was likely the result of a weapons test, evoked the memory of Chernobyl, just as the miniseries on it was one of the top viewed foreign films. The stagnant standard of living in Russia continues to be a drag on the ability of Putin to run the country under his system, just as the country tires of the system itself.
Putin, therefore, had to solve numerous problems with his reorganization. The eroding public opinion has only brought into sharper relief two fast approaching milestones, which are parliament elections in 2021 and the end of his term in 2024. The proposed reforms, with the appearance of greater checks and balances and, perhaps more importantly, his promise to leave as president in four years, are proving popular for the moment.
Yet all of the shifting duties among state organs that Putin proposes is a feature, not a bug, of the new system. It provides him with both the time and opportunity to land in a senior government post from which he can continue to guide, if no longer dictate, the course of the system that he built. The new system is less for establishing checks and balances than establishing a framework for consensus, where the ultimate authority could have little to do with an organizational chart in the constitution.
Joseph Dresen is a senior program associate with the Kennan Institute for Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.