Vladimir Putin’s January Constitutional Coup

The constitutional reform that Vladimir Putin presented on 15th January 2020 was a surprise, especially for those who are not following Russia’s domestic political developments. The possibility of a significant transfer of powers from the president to the Duma (parliament) has been discussed repeatedly over the course of the past year.

Nevertheless, the extent of the reform, the timing and its first direct consequence – the rapid resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his government – came as a surprise.

The Problem of 2024

Vladimir Putin outlined the initial shape of a new power constellation after 2024, strongly emphasising those topics relating to Russia’s social and economic development. On the other hand, an unusually small space was dedicated to foreign policy in the annual address to both houses of the Russian parliament. The extent of the changes proposed by Putin can be described as the third of Putin’s “constitutional coups”. The second constitutional coup occurred as part of Putin’s return to the Kremlin on 24th September 2011 (and Medvedev’s withdrawal from a second presidential term), while the first came with the changes in response to the Beslan school massacre in 2004. The concept of “constitutional coup” derives from the events in France in 1958, when Charles de Gaulle strengthened the powers of the president at the expense of parliament and later had these changes approved by referendum. Neither Putin nor De Gaulle formally crossed the boundaries of constitutional order.

The events of this January coup developed very quickly, which corresponds with Putin’s political style. With the surprising announcement of a constitutional reform and the departure of the whole government, he managed to dominate the political debate on constitutional reform while the elites and citizens were left to face fait accompli. The resignation of the unpopular Medvedev helped to strengthen Putin’s promises of change in his socioeconomic agenda. However, it cannot be ruled out that moving Medvedev to the new position of Vice President of the Security Council, now seen as an “almost” vice president post, is also part of a long chess game involving the transition of power in 2024, a selection process for Putin’s successor and the smokescreen created around it. Putin’s proposals on social policy and the economy, which are estimated to cost between 450 and 500 billion roubles per year, are considered by many not only to express Putin’s “great power ambitions” but also to tactically stabilise society for a peaceful transition of power. Considering the speed of these reforms, it also cannot be excluded that Putin wanted to hold the office of prime minister according to the “old” rules for the remaining four years.

The outlines for constitutional changes can only be partially evaluated considering that it is still a work in progress. I shall limit myself to Putin’s suggestions, which were already proposed to Parliament on 20th January, less than one week after Putin’s speech.

Stronger Parliament?

As part of the constitutional reform, Putin suggests weakening the role of the president in forming the federal government. This should somewhat strengthen the role of the State Duma, which should now approve not only the prime minister but also its deputies and some federal ministers. This step should, at least partially, shift the centre of gravity of power to the Duma and strengthen its influence on governmental policy. So far, the Duma has only expressed its approval of the prime minister chosen by the president. It seems that this may also mean strengthening the role of political parties and increasing the importance of parliamentary elections in the Russian political system.

But Putin made it clear that he was not proposing a shift from a presidential republic to a parliamentary republic, and he wants the president to remain a prominent political figure and a centre of power. According to Putin, this corresponds with Russia’s political, geographical and cultural character. Here, some contradictions and ambiguities in Putin’s proposals can be felt as it seems that the formation of a new government will continue to be linked to presidential elections (and not to parliamentary elections). He also insisted that the president should continue to have the right to dismiss the prime minister and ministers.

Some strengthening is also expected at the level of the upper house of parliament called the Federation Council, which is a non-partisan body that represents all 85 regions of the federation (while the president appoints a total of 17 senators). There are two senators per region in the Council. In the future, the president should discuss his proposals to fill security (siloviki) posts in the government (i.e. ministers of defence, the interior, foreign affairs, etc.) with the Federation Council, as well as his choice of the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation and the judges of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court. In the case of the latter, Putin proposed to limit the number of constitutional judges from 19 to 11.

The key point of the proposed reform is the incorporation of the institution of the State Council into the 1993 Constitution. The State Council was established in 2000 as a para-constitutional institution. The Council was created to give governors (heads of federal regions) access to the president as a result of the significant centralisation of power that Putin undertook at the expense of the regions after 2000. The State Council is now just a forum for discussing ongoing political issues at the level of governors (representatives of federal regions) and the Kremlin power centre. However, the Council has no specific powers.

Putin has proposed that the State Council be incorporated into the Constitution of 1993. As it currently stands, he seems to be proposing that this new body should play a coordinating inter-institutional role among different branches of public power in Russia. According to the proposal submitted, the Council will be formed by the president, and its status will be specified by a separate federal law. Nevertheless, the proposal does not mention that the president would be a chairperson of the Council. Observers believe that the powers which will be given to the Council under the amended constitution will determine the future role of Vladimir Putin after 2024. As it stands, Putin would lead the State Council and thus retain influence over Russian politics beyond his presidency. So far, it seems as though this new body will get a coordinating role with quite a large influence on domestic and foreign policies as well as on priorities of social and economic development.

Finally, it is worth mentioning at least two subsequent points that Putin outlined in his speech. Putin agreed to limit the presidential term to just two per person. Even when Putin’s statement sounded somewhat ambivalent, for he said that he agreed with such a possibility but did not consider it fundamental, it materialised in his proposal. This step, if implemented, would mean that Vladimir Putin would no longer be president after 2024 or, more precisely, that he does not want to seek another term. Moreover, this change means that nobody can serve as president for more than 12 years. In short, Putin’s amendment of the Constitution prevents there being “another Putin” (intended as a person holding the presidential office for 20 years in total, from 2000 to 2008 and from 2012 to 2024).

Putin also reiterated the importance of the “nationalisation” of elites by proposing restrictions on presidential candidates and candidates for prime minister and federal ministers in terms of their citizenship (they must only have Russian citizenship) and, in the case of the president, a minimum 25-year residence in Russia as a constitutional condition.

It is premature to assess the overall impact of the reform of Russia’s political system now. However, it seems that the political system will be transformed as a result of the reform and that these actions undertaken by Vladimir Putin are a way of transitioning power after 2024 or, as some critics say, of transitioning from Putin to Putin.

Russia After President Putin

It is likely that after 2024 Putin will still want to retain a significant amount of political influence, which will guarantee his inviolability, while aiming to reduce potential conflicts between power factions and between institutions at the same time. But Putin’s influence will no longer be linked to the function of the president and the centre of power in the Kremlin, which can undoubtedly be considered a significant change. Allow me to add that this means that the proposed amendments to the Constitution will bring inevitable changes in the system despite their authors perhaps believing they can prevent change. It can thus be estimated that Russia’s political system will operate somewhat more complexly based on a new version of “tandemocracy”, in which there will be several institutions and their representatives – the president, the chairperson of the State Council, the prime minister, and speakers of the State Duma and Federation Council.

The name of Putin’s successor to the office of the president of the Russian Federation, whom Putin still wants to retain noticeable powers, is unclear. However, the idea that by choosing the unknown economist Mikhail Mishustin, Putin is going to repeat the 1999 Yeltsin scenario is, in my opinion, too simplistic. Mishustin can certainly prove to be a proficient politician, but right now his main task is to create and maintain satisfactory conditions for the transition of power, especially in the socioeconomic field. Vladimir Putin is not Boris Yeltsin in December 1999, and Russia in 2020 is dramatically different to what Russia was like in 1999. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the proposed constitutional reform and the manoeuvre to transfer power represent the most significant change in the Russian political system since 1993 when the current constitution was adopted.