All said and done, it’s still Putin’s Russia

Jatin Desai
Monday, 27 January 2020

This is all the more visible in the case of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. All of a sudden, on January 15, Putin in his annual state of the nation speech, proposed changes in the constitution which will give him more authority on the positions he may take over after his Presidential term expires in 2024.

NoNobody leaves power and leaders with absolute power never leave power easily. Authoritarians, military dictators never resign and never retire. China’s President Xi Jinping can continue to remain in power for life as the constitution was amended by the National Peoples’ Congress in 2018. He is all-powerful. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad is 95 years old. So, leaders love to continue in power irrespective of their age or any other reasons. 

This is all the more visible in the case of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. All of a sudden, on January 15, Putin in his annual state of the nation speech, proposed changes in the constitution which will give him more authority on the positions he may take over after his Presidential term expires in 2024. Putin is ruling the country for the last two decades as either President or as PM. He was appointed as PM first in August 1999. He became President in 2000 after Boris Yeltsin resigned and again in 2004. As the constitution of Russia stipulates that President cannot serve more than two consecutive terms, he became PM in 2008 and completed his term in 2012. The current constitution was written during then-President Boris Yeltsin’s tenure in 1993 following a constitutional crisis. 

As Putin had no option in 2008, he made his close aide and then PM Dmitry Medvedev President of the country and he became PM. Medvedev then extended term of President from four to six years but it was Putin who benefited when he became President again in 2012. In 2018, Putin became President for the fourth time. 

Russians are still not clear why Putin announced sweeping changes in the constitution at the beginning of 2020 while his term will expire only in 2024. What was the hurry? Nobody can even predict what is in the mind of Putin. He is not known as a person who acts in a hurry. He is not going to reveal what is in his mind. He is the most popular leader in the country and has no opposition. Globally, also, he has become one of the most powerful persons. 

PM Medvedev and his cabinet resigned soon after Putin’s announcement. Medvedev is a close ally of Putin and so he was appointed as deputy head of the Security Council, an advisory body of regional leaders and Governors. The President heads the Security Council. In the constitutional amendment suggested by Putin, the Security Council will be part of the constitution and it will play a major role. Putin can become part of the strengthened Security Council or PM after his Presidential term gets over. Even if he does not accept any official post, he will continue to remain as Russia’s powerful politician. 

Putin appointed Mikhail Mishustin (53), former head of the Federal Tax Service, as PM. He is not a known face and has no political base. He is known as the finest technocrat and that may be the reason for Putin to bring Mishustin. Russia will have parliamentary elections next year. With these proposed amendments, it will be all the more important for Putin to have a majority of his loyalists in the Duma (lower house of the parliament). 

The President suggested amending Russia’s constitution to limit a future President to two terms and allowing parliament to choose PM candidates and the cabinet, which means reducing the President’s power. The reform shifts some major power from the President to the parliament. The government is acting speedily on Putin’s suggestions. A working group on the constitution amendment immediately made suggestions to the President and the draft law was presented before the Duma. On January 23, Duma unanimously (all 432 members) approved a bill – in the first of three readings - to amend the constitution. The second reading is expected in the second week of February. The Communists also voted in favour of the amendments in the first reading but they are likely to propose suggestions for the second reading, which is most important in the Russian system. 

One thing is clear, Putin will continue to dominate Russian politics even after 2024. He has no opposition. They have been silenced.

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