8 February 2020
by Jens Siegert
I, like many others, attributed the somewhat surprising constitutional changes announced by Vladimir Putin in his annual speech to both chambers of parliament to the so-called “2024 problem”. Since Putin’s re-election two years ago, the 2024 problem has been the name given in Russia to the issue concerning what Putin will do upon the expiry of his last constitutionally permissible term in office in 2024. This issue has preoccupied the country ever since and forms the sometimes more and sometimes less obvious background of almost all politics.
There is no doubt that the 2024 problem is behind the constitutional amendments proposed by Putin and now being implemented in great haste, including the dismissal of Prime Minister Medvedev. But as is very often the case in Russia, it is necessary to look at the underlying layers. Things are almost never (just) what they seem at first, or even second, glance. Besides, we are still dealing with a black box called the Kremlin. We only see what we are supposed to see. Things may be completely different tomorrow. And if things turn out differently from what we are being shown now, we will still not know whether it was all just a diversionary tactic, whether the plans were changed in between, or whether, as I think likely, there were not several different scenarios from the outset, from which one was then chosen.
This commentary will therefore deal with the hitherto unnoticed parts of Putin’s little “revolution from above”. This is to be approached from the following three angles:
1. The initiative to let Russian law take precedence over international law in the future, and the planned abolition of local self-government previously guaranteed in the constitution.
2. What the referendum is all about.
3. The question of whether Putin’s initiatives might, quite counterintuitively, also have something positive to offer.
- International law and local self-determination
Many commentators attach little importance to the planned constitutional amendment to prioritise Russian law over international law and abolish local self-government. This is not because these two changes do not represent significant democratic regression, but because, as often argued, it only fixes de jure what has de facto long since become reality. This is true but fails to investigate the issue in enough depth. Firstly, these changes would interfere with the first part of the constitution, which is explicitly excluded from any form of amendment (§15 priority of international law over Russian law); secondly, a U-turn would be much more difficult than it has been (and is) up until now.
Putin’s previous counter-revolution (against liberalisation after the end of the Soviet Union) would turn into a revolution. So far, Putin has rejected substantial amendments to the constitution, which is highly controversial for many reasons, and this has not been in vain. What is happening now, whether one admits or rejects the reasons, is breaking a taboo that will be difficult to cure. A considerable part of the legitimacy of Putin’s rule stems from his promise of stability. He brought stability after the so-called “chaos” of the 1990s and is seen by most people as a guarantor of that stability. These constitutional changes pose a threat to both.
- Questioning the people
The stability problem described above is also likely to be a concern for the Kremlin. It is not out of the question that the idea to ask the people for their opinion on the proposed constitutional changes has its roots here. However, a referendum encounters two difficulties. The first is legal: there is no referendum law yet. A formally binding referendum on the constitutional amendments is therefore not even possible for the time being. Accordingly, Putin did not talk about a referendum, but rather let his staff talk about asking the people for their opinion, without any clarity on the form this is to take and what relevance it is to have.
The second difficulty is likely to be participation and turnout in a referendum of any kind. It is true that only a minority in Russia openly rejects the planned changes in the balance of power between president, government, parliament and state council. But even so, getting a sufficient number of people to come to the polling stations one Sunday and cast their votes to obtain the desired and lasting legitimacy will, according to all experience, be difficult. The changes are too politically abstract, too much like a power play.
Despite this, the first part of Putin’s speech on 15 January was peppered with fireworks of social populism. As initial surveys by the All-Russian Centre for Research into Public Opinion show, 91 percent of those questioned are in favour of establishing an index of pensions and social benefits linked to inflation in the constitution. 90 percent think it is good that in future, in accordance with the constitution, the minimum wage should not be lower than the state-determined subsistence level. For this reason, many might think that it would be worthwhile to go and vote.
- Positive motivations and/or positive side effects
At this point I would like to propose a thought experiment. Could it not be that Putin, in the announced constitutional changes, was not only guided by his desire to retain power, but also had Russia’s welfare in mind? After all, he has undoubtedly stabilised the country with some skill (and much, especially economic, luck). I use the term stabilised here not in a judgmental, but in an exclusively descriptive way. This stability was achieved and secured with the aid of ever-greater centralisation of power in one centre, in one person. This person is (almost) the only anchor of stability today.
But humans today are mortal. Sooner or later, everyone has to go. Putin has repeatedly emphasised, most recently in a conversation with a group of veterans in St. Petersburg in late January, that he did not want to be carried out of the Kremlin “feet first” like Brezhnev, because that is precisely what contributed so decisively to the collapse of the Soviet Union (i.e. the Russian state). So, it is not presumptuous to assume that Putin wants the stability he has created to outlive him. For that, he must organise the transition. This is a task he has failed to accomplish so far, because he has created a system that is not future-proof without him.
The now-proposed changes in the balance of power could thus not only be seen as weakening the position of a future president, so that Putin can control him as an elder statesman in whatever capacity (President of the Council of State, Prime Minister, Supreme Constitutional Court judge etc.), but also as an attempt to create a future balance of power that can do without someone like Putin. This is because Putin does not trust anyone that he currently knows to take on his role.
Some commentators, such as Mark Galeotti, whom I regard very highly, hope that the changes might even have undesirable positive side effects. He writes that they could possibly break “hyper-presidentialism” and create “multiple formal centres of power”, which would be an important step towards a more democratic community. Considering the (fortunate) fact that Putin has been rather reluctant to exercise his almost omnipotent power, this would be a protection against possibly less scrupulous successors. One could not necessarily assume this kind of reluctance from his potential successors. So, what if Putin saw this as an issue too?
All of this is quite conceivable. However, there are two factors that go against it: first, the changes in the balance of power do not go far enough. Yes, chambers of parliament, the Council of State, the government and the supreme courts are given more power, but if placed on a scale, their powers would still not outweigh those of the president. Without Putin’s personality on the non-presidential side, it lacks any significant weight. At best, the changes are sufficient for a transitional period, during which Putin can monitor his potential successor and intervene if they turn out to be unsuitable.
It seems to me more likely, however, that this attempt has been carried out too half-heartedly to resolve the succession dilemma. If that is the case, then it is quite conceivable that this very attempt will lead to a threat to the stability it seeks to preserve. This is supported by the extraordinary haste with which the constitutional changes are being pushed forward. Russian legislation was already producing a series of poorly functioning laws prior to any changes and these new reorganisations are complex. There is a great danger that fatal mistakes will be made unintentionally (even from the Kremlin’s point of view). This would then require the return of that same manual control that is perhaps just being weakened.
Translated by Beth Cosgrove