Vladimir Putin may be setting himself up to remain Russia’s leader well beyond the end of his presidency, to no one’s surprise. In his annual state-of-the-nation speech earlier this week, he laid out a roadmap for overhauling Russia’s political institutions, implying a major constitutional shakeup. The entire cabinet, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, immediately resigned.
Putin’s proposals were vague and at times self-contradictory. But they provide valuable insights into his plans for after 2024, when his second consecutive term – and legally his final one – ends. For starters, Putin would shift powers from the president to the State Duma (the parliament), and transfer substantial, as-yet-unidentified powers to a Putin-led State Council (not mentioned in the Constitution) and Security Council (mentioned but not described in the Constitution).
Other proposed changes include the suppression of constitutional checks and balances, the virtual elimination of judicial independence, the loss of autonomy for municipal governments, and the priority of Russian legislation over international obligations. The Russian Constitution is very clear that only a Constitutional Assembly may change these foundational principles of Russia’s political system. Putin said that he would not convene one. In this sense, his speech laid out an open and transparent plan for a coup, or, more precisely, what political scientists call a self-coup, or autogolpe – once a favorite tool of Latin American caudillos.
In fact, this coup is a non-event: the dramatic overhaul of political institutions implies no change in Russia’s political regime. By definition, a political regime is a set of rules, formal or informal, that determine the selection of leaders and policies. Before the coup, Putin was in charge of both. After the coup, this is still the case, and he plans to keep it that way. As Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the State Duma, put it in 2014 (when he was Putin’s deputy chief of staff), “There is Putin; there is Russia. No Putin – no Russia.”
Of course, the country will outlast the man. Volodin was referring to the Russian political regime, which Putin created in his own image. That regime may eventually be reshaped, but probably not until after Putin is out of power.
Whether Putin will be forced from power hasn’t been a serious question in a long time. Some may have thought (or hoped) that he would choose to retire in 2024. Had that been the case, he would be preparing the ground by introducing checks and balances aimed at protecting his safety and wellbeing after he left office.
By announcing plans to dismantle checks and balances, Putin has made very clear that he intends to hold onto power, though it remains uncertain how he will structure the system. Russian elites have no doubt been discussing Putin’s options since he began his current term in 2018. For example, he could create a new union with Belarus, enabling him to restart the term-limit clock.
Putin has chosen to follow the example of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down as president, but retained much of the authority he held in that role. Shortly before his resignation, Nazarbayev strengthened Kazakhstan’s Security Council and subsequently became its chairman. He was also officially appointed a “Leader of the Nation” with a veto over all important appointments.
Putin also seems to be laying the groundwork to choose a loyal successor. Among his proposals is a more stringent residency requirement for presidential candidates: currently, they must have lived in Russia for ten years; Putin wants to make it 25. Moreover, he wants to exclude anyone who has ever held foreign citizenship or residence permits. Whoever Putin is attempting to target with this rule – perhaps opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who left Russia in 2013 – apparently poses too great a threat to his preferred successor.
The proposal to eliminate the primacy of international laws, agreements, and the decisions of international bodies in Russia seems to advance similar ends. The European Court of Human Rights regularly overturns the Putin-controlled judiciary’s criminal convictions of another popular opposition figure, Alexei Navalny.
In order to stave off resistance to this power play, Putin also announced an increase in annual social spending of about 0.5% of GDP. And he replaced the deeply unpopular Medvedev with a highly competent but low-profile technocrat, Mikhail Mishustin, who was previously in charge of tax administration.
Like Putin’s other “non-political” prime ministers – Mikhail Fradkov (2004-07) and Viktor Zubkov (2007-08) – Mishustin conveniently lacks the charisma to challenge him. And while Mishustin is respected for streamlining and digitizing the tax system, his popularity is tempered by the fact that tax collection increased dramatically under his leadership.
Putin seems to have thought of everything. But the fact that he finds it necessary to go to such lengths to protect himself and his potential successor reveals how tenuous his position is. His famously high approval rating now stood at a paltry (for him) 64% in December 2019. A loyalist successor would be unlikely to reach anywhere close to that level.
So, the message of Putin’s recent speech is not that the Russian regime is going to be transformed. It isn’t – as financial markets, which didn’t budge, seem to recognize. Rather, the message is that Putin knows his regime is on the wrong side of history – and he is dead set on keeping it there.
Sergei Guriev, a former chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and former rector of the New Economic School in Moscow, is a professor of economics at Sciences Po, Paris.