Putin ushers Russia into transition period

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual address to Federal Assembly, Moscow, January 15, 2020 

It is a common fallacy that authoritarian rulers can afford to be impervious to public opinion. On the contrary, leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Erdogan who are democratically elected ‘strongmen’ and enjoy high popularity in their respective countries are keenly attuned to the public opinion. Paradoxically, the more ‘authoritarian’ they become, the bigger seems to be their craving for public approval. 

Putin made an extraordinary statement last Thursday that Russian voters will have the final say on his proposed constitutional amendments, which he had unveiled in the annual presidential address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on January 15. Putin said, “It is necessary that people come to the polling stations and say whether they want the changes or not. Only after the people speak out, will I sign [the legislation] or not sign.” 

Interestingly, Putin made the above remark even as the prestigious Levada Centre pollster came up with the startling finding that only 27 percent of Russians want him to stay on as president beyond 2024, while 25% said they wanted him to either return to private life or retire, and another 7% of respondents said they do not want to see him in public life at all! 

Something doesn’t gel here, isn’t it? After all, the constitutional changes proposed by Putin aren’t really the stuff of manipulative politics. Rather, they signify winds of change in a country where the public mood is one of fatigue and desire for “change”. 

Curiously, Putin himself acknowledged it: “Our society is clearly calling for change. People want development. . . . The pace of change must be expedited every year and produce tangible results in attaining worthy living standards that would be clearly perceived by the people. And, I repeat, they must be actively involved in this process.”

Any longtime observer of Russian politics would have sensed this public mood even before Putin pointedly drew attention to it. (See my blog Putin’s Russia twenty years on.) But the West’s obsession with Putin clouds judgment on what the Russian leader is aiming at through the proposed constitutional reform. 

The Russian society continues to repose faith in the state as the main tool for socio-economic changes. But people want the government to deliver with efficiency. Putin understands that the society is outstripping the state in expectations.

The thrust of Putin’s January 15 address was on a reset of policies in the economic sphere. It flagged a shift away from what can be called “Fortress Russia” toward the economy, growth and development and social issues.  

This shift away from geopolitics has been possible, thanks to Russia’s overall standing and its capacity to push back at Western encroachment. Several factors work in Russia’s favour — the weakening of the trans-Atlantic alliance under President Trump, the decline of the EU and the growing desire of European countries to strengthen bilateral ties with Russia, US’ relative decline, the successful modernisation of Russian armed forces, Sino-Russian quasi-alliance, and above all, the booming foreign exchange reserves exceeding $500 billion that makes “Fortress Russia” impenetrable to western sanctions. 

Clearly, a more relaxed Russian policy toward Ukraine is already visible as the centrepiece of Putin’s overall moderation in geopolitical tensions with the West. In particular, the exit of Vladislav Surkov from the post of Russian special representative to talks with Ukraine and his replacement by the deal-making Dmitry Kozak hints at willingness to compromise. 

Let us revisit Putin’s 3 key reform proposals: limit the presidency to maximum of two terms; transfer presidential prerogative to the Duma (parliament) to appoint the prime minister and the cabinet; and prevent Russians with dual nationality from holding public offices. In essence, they amount to a rebalancing of state power — curbing the powers of the president and empowering the parliament, and making it impossible for a US-backed puppet to be inserted into the Kremlin. 

Putin hopes to introduce checks and balances in the system by making systemic changes so that the great job he has done to rebuild Russia will endure. The messaging here is unmistakably that Putin wants to go — or is at least considering it. 

The January 15 speech enshrined economic reforms in the constitution, decentralised the powers of the federal government, created a firewall legally for an independent judiciary, etc. These are legal backstops and safeguards to ensure that Russia will never slide back to the borderline failed state it was under Boris Yeltsin.   

Equally, Putin laid out a vision for Russia — improved healthcare, free (hot) meals for all schoolchildren, internet access for all citizens and so on. Putin sounded like a man securing his legacy. 

Putin’s motivations are to be seen in the backdrop of political centralisation that took place under him. There was a fleeting moment in the early nineties when “post-Soviet” Russia seemed edging toward democratisation — that is, till the autumn of 1993 when Yeltsin unleashed tanks to crush his detractors in the parliament, paving the way for the current constitution that put Russia on the path of authoritarianism. 

Putin’s proposed reforms chip away at the seamless powers of the Russian presidency and seek to put in place a framework that will allow for better checks and balances in the system.

So, what exactly are Putin’s intentions? Recently, Putin ruled out the very idea of a supervisory role above any successor, saying he did not intend to stay on and “mentor” in the way Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew did in the nineties. 

Putin seems to be paving the way for a genuine successor in 2024. He is creating a transitory 4-year period ahead in which to observe a chosen successor to ensure he does not change course and rip up the core tenets of national independence, statism and Russia’s conservative ideology.

Indeed, it is a complicated legacy too. As one analyst put it, “No other country ever started out with 23 wealthy oligarchs owning and running all of the country’s huge industries … while most of the population was living in absolute poverty. Somehow a lowly, unknown KGB officer had to figure out how to turn this huge landmass into a thriving country respected across the world. This has been accomplished in twenty years.” 

In the process, Putin became the linchpin of the Russian political system. It is an article of faith for Putin that Russia must maintain a strong presidency. But Russia is entering a new political era. And Putin will not remain president when his term ends in 2024.