History helps us understand how Vladimir Putin handles his power
During his reign in the 17th century and 18th century, Russian Tsar Peter the Great introduced what was known as the Secret Council, which was meant to be an advisory body to the emperor. In the 18th century, another advisory body was established by Russian Tsar Peter III, who governed for six months, this time called the Imperial Council. Both had consisted of a small group of handpicked citizens who each had the full trust of the tsar.
In the 19th century, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, one of the first acts of Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro I would be to establish for his newly independent state a constitutional order in which, aside from the usual legislative, executive, and judicial powers, was a fourth power for himself. As “moderator” with special authority based on constitutional rights, he would balance the policy between the three strands of government. He would not only give advice, but he would also intervene when something went wrong in the country and indeed to protect the national greatness.
Such comparable elements to his governing role and power are to be found in Kazakhstan. Last year, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, one of the longest serving leaders of a former Soviet republic, announced his resignation. But, having prepared the new political landscape with the establishment of a Security Council, he did not lose all power. Nazarbayev remained the lifetime chairman of the all powerful Security Council, with authority and veto power over the president and senate of Kazakhstan.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the world when he announced constitutional changes by redistributing power. This meant that his successor would be weakened while parliament and the future prime minister would have greater power and broader duties. This move might suggest that Putin aims to be prime minister again when his term as president expires in 2024, or he might seek to play a strong “father of the nation” role indeed akin to the “moderator” power held by Dom Pedro I.
Not least because in 2000, after Putin was first elected president, he had in fact established a State Council as an advisory, comprising the leaders of seven constituent territories that represent each of the seven federal districts of Russia. The current State Council is the third in the history of the country. It is the successor of the State Council of the Soviet Union, which was the successor of the State Council of the Russian Empire.
Putin appears to be tired of daily responsibilities but not of his desire to control the government. The option therefore that Putin might take a new role as the head of the State Council with broader authorities appears to be most likely, for he could then preside over the future of Russia while retaining legislative and executive powers. With other autocratic leaders in states like Iran, China, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, Putin might have an interest to see Russia ruled by his own firm grip in the long term, even under the veneer of presidential change.
Putin has criticized Mikhail Gorbachev for his role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, calling the event the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” He does not want to play Russian roulette with the future of his country, and is still eager for control over the government and policy while also being very careful. American diplomat Strobe Talbott wrote that the aggressive military actions that Putin has taken confirm that he has no desire to be another Gorbachev, a man “who lost an empire,” or another Boris Yeltsin, whose laissez faire politics led rump state Russia down a path toward chaos, economic ruin, and diminished international status.
Despite the constitutional changes, one thing is sure. After Putin leaves office, Russia will not be much different. There will still be aggressive incursions into Syria, Crimea, Chechnya, South Ossetia, and Eastern Ukraine. These actions have now challenged American and European security. Even the next four years remain difficult on the international level. This is not just because of Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Moscow and Beijing setting the agenda as they challenge Western democracy. The world order over this decade will start with the United States presidential election this fall, which without a doubt seems to be far more interesting than Russian or Chinese “constitutional reforms.”
Faruk Ajeti is an Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an affiliated researcher with the Austrian Institute for International Politics in Vienna.