Russian Reforms-Putinism Institutionalised

Putin’s Administrative Reforms have raised questions on their intent and scope. Do they point to an end-state plan or to a roost for post-2024 political influence?

Background

Russia’s 1993 Constitution makes it a federal semi-presidential republic with the President and the Prime Minister sharing governing responsibilities as the head of state and head of government, respectively. In reality, under Putin, it is perhaps, the world’s strongest presidency with unchecked powers. The constitution limited the president’s term to two ‘consecutive’ terms of four years each, which was increased to 6 years in 2008.

After Stalin, Putin has the distinction of being the longest-serving president (20 years cumulative) with a break as Prime Minister. He completes his fourth term in 2024.

In 2000, Putin had introduced a slew of reforms that increased the powers of the presidency.  These included the authority to fire governors and disband state legislatures.  Putin changed the makeup of the Federation Council (upper house of parliament) allowing regional governors to designate councilors but not sit in the council themselves thus reducing their role in federal politics, putting an end to the perks of a permanent residence in Moscow and ending their parliamentary immunity. By 2002, all the dual senator-governors had left and been replaced by new Kremlin-friendly senators with the total approval of Putin. Also, the creation of seven new federal districts with their presidentially appointed representatives was an attempt by Putin to regain control of the federal powers lost under Yeltsin.

The latest reforms proposed by Putin, subject to approval by ‘popular vote,’  include setting term limits for the president, more authority for the parliament, wider powers for the State Council, barring from presidential candidature those not a  resident of Russia for at least 25 years and holding foreign citizenship and stricter requirements for top officials like the PM, judges, governors, etc.  He has also proposed limiting the influence of international law within Russia, asking that Russian constitutional law to be upheld at all times.

In order to facilitate these reforms, the Russian government resigned and a new PM-designate Mikhail Mishustin, formerly, the head of Federal Tax Services, has been announced.    

Analysis

At this stage, the proposed changes are at best vague and difficult to comprehend. The issue being debated is how these would impinge on the status and role of Putin once he leaves office in 2024.

Analyzing these reforms purely from the perspective of Putin’s role after 2024, they hint at a constitutional stature for Putin, perhaps in the State Council. This will give him a role, albeit in a more subtle form. 

The authority of the President is being diluted vis a vis the Duma which is in contrast to what happened in 2000 when Putin was consolidating his powers. Now a more empowered Duma is likely to prevent a strong President from exercising ‘unchecked’ powers. For one, the Duma, and not the President would have the power to appoint the PM.  

More important, after having served four terms as President, he has suggested limiting future presidential terms to just two like in the US. While barring those based abroad also makes sense as it would eliminate any potential opposition from overseas.  

Putin’s ideology, priorities, and polities have been referred to as Putinism.  American economist Richard W, Rahn, defined it as a “Russian nationalistic- authoritarian form of government that pretends to be a free-market democracy” and which "owes more of its lineage to fascism than communism ".  He had predicted that "as Russia's economic fortunes changed, Putinism was likely to become more repressive".    

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader tweeted that Putin’s speech was indicative of his desire to continue calling the shots even after his presidential term  “The only goal of Putin and his regime is to stay in charge for life, having the entire country as his personal asset and seizing its riches for himself and his friends,” Navalny said. 

Counterpoint

Putin’s action has support within the Russian system.  It is to Putin’s credit that during his presidency, the Russian Federation has been more or less stable, economically it grew till the slump in oil market due to global slowdown. Globally, it also was able to confront the USA  and once again emerge as a power to reckon with.

Independent analyst Masha Lipman, explaining the need for Russian internal stability, has commented,: “The goal is for the system to remain stable and for Putin to retain his grip on power and to remain what he has been throughout these 20 years — the most important politician in the country, the ultimate decision-maker, the uncontested unchallenged leader of no alternative.” 

Assessment 

  • All fears that Putin may not step down when his term ends in 2024 have now been laid to rest.
  • With an eye on the post-2024 scenario, a constitutional political space is being carved out so that he retains his relevance in the Russian political scene, probably through the State Council.
  • Over the past few years, there has been a steady fall in his approval ratings - from 82 to 68 in April 2018. By introducing these administrative reforms, Putin seems to have acknowledged the mood of the people to an extent and tried to make amends in his last term.
  • After a rise in living standards during the early years of Putin’s regime, there has been an economic decline and corruption has soared.  However, the proposed reforms remain silent about how to fight corruption.
  • It is interesting that Putin has chosen to put these reforms to a popular vote.  He would like a public mandate to ensure the legitimacy of these reforms. With controlled dissent and opposition in Russia, it is unlikely that these reforms will not be favored.   
  • Internationally, the continued presence of Putin in the Russian political scene, even if in the shadows,  would mean that the West would continue to face a confrontationist Russia rather than a conformist one for some time more.

 

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