Putin’s constitutional changes eschew the West and borrow from China
In January Vladimir Putin surprised observers by launching an apparently comprehensive constitutional reform. Since then a flood of foreign and domestic commentary has speculated about Putin’s goals and the outcome of this process. Since Russia’s constitution belongs more to the ornamental aspects of state power than to the effective elements of that power, Putin’s goals and the final shape of the state remain unclear.
Of course, one need not be a professional Kremlinologist to grasp that Putin is intent first of all on securing and extending the totality of his power, wealth and position, above any law or institution, into the future. It is equally clear that he also wants to preserve the legacy of his system and his entourage. Whereas preserving the system is a natural inclination of any strong political leader, in Russia preserving the system crucially depends upon patrons protecting their clients. Putin’s ambition to secure his cronies’ future is essential to the system’s present and future functioning. This much is clear to everyone writing about these “reforms.”
That clarity also means that Putin is not turning Russia into a liberal democracy or even a law-governed state. Russia’s long-standing despotism will continue, or at least so Putin hopes. But there is a dimension to this reform process that few, if any, analysts have considered — its international dimension.
In that context two critical issues have emerged. First, Putin stated that the new constitution will state expressly that Russian national law overrides international law. Therefore, Russia is not subject to the latter’s dictates. In practice this is nothing new, for Russia has long behaved in a high-handed manner towards international law and other states. Putin’s recent interview for Tass indicates his rejection of Ukraine’s right to any independence form Russia. Nevertheless, this rejection of international law suggests that Putin and his government fear the upcoming trial in the Netherlands before the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding the Malaysian Airlines flight (MH 17) that Russian soldiers shot down in 2014. Evidently the Netherlands (where the flight originated) not only has an extremely strong case, it also appears likely that Russia’s government as well as the soldiers who shot the plane down will be implicated as war criminals.
That would be a serious blow to Putin and his government. Putin therefore has moved preemptively to deprive this verdict of any domestic Russian resonance. Whether this effort to disregard international law will succeed is an open question. But the government’s effort to preempt the ICC surely indicates its fear of being labeled war criminals and anxiety over the domestic consequences of such a verdict.
A second international aspect of this current “constitutional reform” process relates to its supposed models. Putin evidently seeks to free himself from the mundane requirements of dealing with Russia’s social-economic problems that many have said bore him. Putin’s efforts to create a position that allows him to govern above the hurly-burly of daily government work appear to be modeled on China or Kazakhstan, where such developments facilitated the succession to Deng Xiaoping or of President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the latter case.
What makes this interesting is that for 300 years, since Peter the Great, Russia has looked to the West under both tsars and Soviets for inspirations for reform. Even Marxism-Leninism was, in its origins, a Western idea. After Stalin died, reformers in the USSR looked to either Eastern or Western Europe and the U.S. for ideas of reform, culminating in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Boris Yeltsin’s quasi-revolutionary moves.
Now, however, it appears that Putin and his inner circle have decisively rejected that trend and are looking to Asia and especially to China. Many Russian commentators have spoken positively (and understandably so) of China’s amazing progress since the end of Mao’s reign. And there is clearly a constituency for importing Chinese ideas and practices into Russian politics. Russia’s draconian new internet laws, aiming to shut the country off from the rest of the world, clearly betray the influence of China’s great firewall to protect itself from subversion through the internet. And politically too Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have both acknowledged that Russia’s relations with China constitute a multi-dimensional alliance.
Virtually everyone who has studied this alliance concedes that China is the dominant factor here. Putin’s borrowing from Chinese legislation and apparent emulation of Chinese political practices should alert us to the fact that this constitutional reform, whatever its domestic significance and outcome, may have equally profound international repercussions.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.