Did Putin Just Reveal Plans for How Russia Would Run Without Him?
What is he planning?
"Without Putin" is how young people in Russia today often describe a concept that is unfamiliar, and well they might: For most of their lives, they have known no other leader than Vladimir Putin. Yet all of Russia, not least President Putin himself, knows he cannot remain leader indefinitely. That's why Putin, who has led Russia in one form or another since the turn of the century, is now smoothing the way for his gradual exit — as well as for major changes in Russia's system of governance.
Putin has proposed constitutional changes that aim to establish a more institutional form of rule by balancing the powers of different branches of government against each other. In essence, Putin is attempting to secure his legacy by slowly shifting Russia's governance away from the personality-driven politics that have dominated the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union toward a more resilient, institutional base of governance. Putin's best-laid plans, however, won't be without their challenges: Factionalism within the ruling elite and electoral pressure from opposition parties could eventually upset United Russia's dominant position in parliament, leading to greater political discord or — in the most extreme case regime change, in essence, if opposition parties gain control of parliament.
A Seismic Shift?
In power since late 1999, Putin will be 71 by the time his current presidential term ends in 2024. According to the constitution, he must then make way for someone else due to rules that prevent presidents from serving more than two consecutive stints in office. Of course, Putin could linger, wielding power over Russia in a different guise. Even so, an eventual transition is inevitable, and Putin's proposed charter amendments shed light on what might happen next. According to the possible changes, the State Duma would gain some authority to select a government, including the prime minister and other federal ministers — in contrast to the present system, in which the president approves everyone. In addition, the proposed amendments would limit future presidents to two terms in total, rather than just two consecutively, meaning that Putin's successors would not be able to emulate the incumbent by extending their rule for decades by sitting out a term before returning to office.
In its current form, the Russian presidency is a super-presidential model that grants the holder substantial executive authority beyond his or her role as head of state and commander of the armed forces. This includes the right to directly select and appoint the heads of the so-called "power ministries," namely, the foreign, defense, interior, emergency situations and justice portfolios — a step Putin took most recently on Jan. 22 following the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev's government. These ministries, in turn, report directly to the president. The president can also appoint and dismiss the prime minister, albeit with the consent of the State Duma, Russia's lower house. The president, however, has the power to dissolve parliament if it fails to approve the president's nominee for prime minister three times in a row. Additionally, the president chairs the national security and state councils. Finally, the president has the theoretical right to govern by decree, so long as the fiat does not violate the constitution; in practice, however, presidential decrees have the force of law, essentially endowing the head of state with dictatorial powers.
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Putin has benefited greatly from the super-presidential system instituted by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, yet he has also witnessed abuses of the office. The Yeltsin years became notorious due to the domination of a gaggle of oligarchs known as "the family" who surrounded the ailing Yeltsin and profited greatly from the corruption and near anarchy of the era. In his two decades in power, Putin has spent his time in office restoring Russia's stability and power, meaning he likely wants to prevent a weak successor from undoing his work.
Putin, however, has emulated many of his predecessors throughout Russian history by remaining vague about his succession. Behind the scenes, different factions and personalities in the Kremlin are jockeying for power in a post-Putin Russia. While Putin has successfully kept a lid on infighting, he is also aware that a future leader that lacks his strength, or unbridled drive to control the office, could easily plunge Russia into a crisis. With that in mind, Putin's reforms make sense, as shifting Russia toward a system of rule based on the interdependence of the different branches of government will provide more checks and balances.
The increasing necessity for a broader consensus between the various branches of government and within the parliament — and, as a consequence, within the dominant United Russia party — would reduce the impact of individual presidents or government ministers. By investing the State Duma with the power to appoint ministers (other than the power ministries that a future president would continue to appoint under the proposed charter amendments) and depriving the president of a veto, the various factions in parliament will have no choice but to work toward a consensus rather than acting on the dictates of one individual. While a new president would still direct Russia's security and foreign policies thanks to his or her control over the power ministries, the State Duma will obtain more control over economic and energy policies, forcing the different offices to collaborate.
Problems on the Horizon
Adjusting Russia's model of governance away from a centralized, personality-driven system, however, introduces significant challenges. Five parties currently sit in parliament, but the legislature is dominated by United Russia, which has become famous as the "party of no ideology" even if it is nominally center-right. In truth, United Russia represents a broad coalition of interest groups ranging from business leaders to nationalists, social conservatives and trade unionists. Should the amendments divide authority over certain policy areas among different branches of government, the various factions in United Russia might not all get an equal slice of the pie, creating competition that could disrupt governance. What's more, United Russia's top-down system of patronage could further exacerbate such competition, as the various patronage networks for each of the factions could battle one another for influence in the absence of a single person doling out favors as in the current system.
Even in tsarist and Soviet times, some Russian leaders endeavored to move the country toward a more institutional model of governance, only to run up against a variety of problems, including the absence of an independent judiciary, systemic corruption and energetic radical political groups — to say nothing of many leaders' proclivity to use violence to impose their will rather than seek a lasting consensus. The same challenges will plague Putin's envisioned legacy, potentially leading to a weaker executive power. And the threats to the proposed system might not just come from United Russia, as the party has been facing an increasingly potent electoral challenge from opposition groups. With power concentrated more in the State Duma, it will be paramount for the party to maintain its majority if it wishes to retain control of executive powers. (If United Russia no longer controls a majority, it could have other parties form a governing coalition government without it.) The party currently controls 341 of the 450 seats in the State Duma, likely giving it a big enough cushion to weather any downturn in popularity in next year's parliamentary elections (or possibly sooner if constitutional reform efforts also lead to early elections). Beyond this, however, continued generational changes and limited economic prospects could usher in major changes in the State Duma's makeup.
Putin has gotten the ball rolling on his amendments to give himself ample time to manage the transition. In the short term, the amendments are almost certain to pass, while Putin is likely to retain the reins of power until his term in office ends (and, potentially, even beyond it). However, as Putin ages, his control will gradually weaken, allowing the new system to take effect. In the long term, electoral challenges to United Russia, as well as factional competition within the party and the political interest groups surrounding it, will likely weaken executive power in Russia, which has a long history of political violence, rather than consensus-based governance. The challenges facing Russia in the future, including demographic decline, a sluggish economy and diminished ability to project power overseas, will require strong, legitimate rule. In embracing a consensus-based institutional system, Putin is hoping to restore a degree of faith in the Russian state, ensuring it can remain strong and capable after he is gone. But that is better said than done if the state descends into infighting.