In my previous post, I wrote about the broad outlines of the constitutional changes proposed by Putin, but without speculating too much on their import. I will do that now in more detail.
Personalization to Institutionalization
Putin is looking for a retirement plan that guarantees the security of the system he has built, but in a way that it manages to operate on its own without his active management. As I have long thought, Putin’s end game is to transition into an overseeing “elder statesman” role, along the model of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore [see 1, 2, 3], and this would appear to confirm it.
Some analysts interpret this as Putin creating guarantees for himself and his elites from future prosecution, since a less powerful President would be less likely to put them on trial/expropriate them. I suppose that’s one way of looking at it, though that’s hardly going to happen short of somebody like Khodorkovsky becoming President and settling scores. And these types are only popular amongst the think-tankers who generate such analysis.
I would submit there’s a more credible interpretation. This is perfectly in line with Putin’s own political philosophy, which closely mirrors that of emigre White philosopher Ivan Ilyin (see Drozdova, Oksana, and Paul Robinson. 2019. “A Study of Vladimir Putin’s Rhetoric.” Europe-Asia Studies, May, 1–19). Although a supporter of strong institutions, Ilyin realized that the Bolsheviks had destroyed any innate Russian capacity for institution-building (“consciousness of law”), and any attempt to hastily reintroduce democracy would lead to yet another round of looting. The 1990s proved him right. The solution, then, was to have a strong state incubate those institutions under a period of conservative authoritarian stability under which Russians were to develop a sense of civic consciousness. With this process now in its mature stages, Putin may believe it is time to start planning for that next stage.
Russia’s political system will remain Presidential (just not super-presidential as it is today), even if the Duma acquires more powers such as confirming PMs and Ministers. However, the greater bounds on the President’s powers from both the Duma/parties and, prospectively, the State Council – as well as an explicit clarification that he cannot serve more than two terms, period – would crimp the possibility of the emergence of another Putin-like “father of the nation” figure.
The State Council
The State Council of 1901 by Ilya Repin (Russian Museum, own photo).
PS. Try to find Ivan Durnovo, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, and other historical characters by zooming in. Here’s the key (in Russian).
The State Council will be raised in profile from a merely consultative body to one with greater roles that are explicitly spelled out in the Constitution (they are currently undefined). However, what is clear already is that one cannot speak of it as a Politburo, or an Iranian-style Guardian Council, which are the comparisons some have raised; according to Meduza’s sources, Putin’s own plans involve him merely retaining the ability to influence government processes, but not to “preserve the whole breadth of his power.” The President will retain supreme executive authority.
The other popular comparison is with the Security Council of Kazakhstan, which had its remit greatly expanded before President Nazarbayev retired into it in 2019 as permanent “elder statesman.” However, it is a very narrow body (seven permanent members, and a few temporary ones) that is exclusively concerned with the military and national security. This doesn’t parallel Putin’s vision, in which regional representatives also play a very large role.
It so happens that we have a model for just such a structure from Russia’s own history: The eponymous State Council from the period of the Russian Empire. Half of its members were appointed by the Tsar (mostly distinguished bureaucrats and military officers), while the other represented the regions as well as separate social/professional classes (nobility, clergy, scientists, businessmen)*. Its chairman was appointed by the Tsar. This made it into a very useful repository of accumulated knowledge and experience.
It is plausible that we could see something something along this framework, though the chairman’s role – if Putin indeed plans to take it up himself – would presumably need to be independent of Presidential (Tsarist) appointment.
I don’t think new PM Mikhail Mishustin himself is in the running on account of being highly untelegenic, low charisma, and his being quarter Jewish being potentially politically troublesome. However, I wouldn’t rule him out entirely, since he’s a great bureaucrat, 14 years younger than Putin, high IQ, and hasn’t openly displayed any political ambitions (the latter is something that Putin values in particular). Nonetheless, I think what’s likelier is that in addition to his primary role of continuing liberal economic reforms and ensuring the success of the national projects, his other function would be to vet various deputy PMs for the successorship (e.g. much like Dmitry Medvedev and Sergey Ivanov competed for the successorship under PM Fradkov in the mid-2000s).
We will need to closely look at the identities of the deputy PMs. One widely rumored potential successor, at least back in 2018, was Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev (son of Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council, and noted ideologue of silovik supremacy). If the new Cabinet sees him “upgraded” to a deputy PM position, as well as a set of other dynamic “youngsters”, this would be a strong hint that we’re looking at just such a contest.
Ensuring Continuity of Ideology
This is clearly the goal of the bans on PMs, Ministers, governors, and some mayors and judges, from having second citizenships and foreign residencies, as well as the requirement that Presidential candidates should have been resident in Russia for 25 years (previously 10 years) and never had a foreign citizenship or residency permit. At a stroke, this rules out a bunch of Atlanticists (e.g. NGO types, oligarchs) and crypto-Atlanticists (e.g. the “globalized” children of the sovok boomer nomenklatura, such as Peskov’s Francophile daughter) coming to power. (Replicating mechanisms that China has in place by default).
More practically, this rules out both Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Swiss resident) and, perhaps, Alexey Navalny (does a student visa count as residency?), the two least incredible candidates for the future figureheads of a post-color revolution Russia.
One thing that needs to be ironed out: The status of Crimeans, who – it would formally appear – would all be banned from running for the Russian Presidency. Evidently, exceptions need to be cleverly made.
The clarification that Russian law is supreme over international law also insulates Russia from emerging neo-Bolshevik tendencies in the West (e.g. when is consuming meat going to become a war crime against the environment?).
* It is perhaps telling that a highly diverse group of people have been tasked with developing the needed amendments to the Constitution: “The body would comprise 75 politicians, legislators, scientists and public figures. Among the group’s members are Rusfond charity organization’s President Lev Ambinder, Ataman (head) of the Kuban Cossack society Nikolay Doluda, former pole vaulter and two-time Olympic champion Yelena Isinbayeva, Head of the Union of Theatrical Figures of Russia Alexander Kalyagin, Kaspersky Lab co-founder Natalya Kasperskaya, President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Sergei Katyrin, renowned pianist Denis Matsuyev, actor Vladimir Mashkov, Director of St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky, internationally acclaimed pediatric surgeon and President of Research Institute of Emergency Pediatric Surgery and Traumatology Leonid Roshal, Head of the Russian Union of Journalists Vladimir Solovyev, State Tretyakov Gallery Director General Zelfira Tregulova, Mosfilm studio Director General Karen Shakhnazarov, President of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Alexander Shokhin and others.“