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President until 2036? The impact of Putin’s constitutional overhaul on Russia and the World

8 May, 2020

by Hamish Cruickshank – Research Assistant

With Vladimir Putin’s fourth term as President of Russia nearing its conclusion in 2024, many had been wondering what the future held in store for the country. While some optimists believed that this was a chance for a new leader in Russia and subsequently a Russian rapprochement with the West, most analysts predicted that come 2024, Vladimir Putin would still hold the power in the country. But with the Russian Constitution prohibiting a president from serving more than two six-year terms in office, the question was how? Putin managed to circumnavigate this issue in 2008 by swapping places with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and forming a tandemocracy, with Medvedev taking the Presidency and Putin assuming the role of Prime Minister. However, a repeat of such a scenario seemed doubtful given the unrest in 2012 and Putin has decided to pursue a different strategy this time around.

On 15 January, 2020, Putin proposed a number of amendments to the Russian Constitution covering a variety of issues ranging from prohibiting government officials from possessing foreign citizenship to banning same-sex marriage in the country and enhancing state pensions. Most importantly, however, Putin proposed that restrictions prohibiting a President from running for a third consecutive mandate be removed. On 10 March, the proposed amendments were taken up by both houses of the Russian Parliament and Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space and now member of the Duma) stated that Putin should be allowed to run for the Presidency in 2024 as his “enormous authority” was a significant stabilising factor in Russian society. The amendments were approved and while the two-term limit on the presidency remained intact, the new legislation stipulates that any sitting President can run for office “regardless of the number of terms which that person held at the time when the amendment came into force.” Subsequently, the amendments were then forwarded to Russia’s Constitutional Court where they were swiftly ratified on 14 March.

Impact in Russia 

The proposed amendments were scheduled to be put to an “All-Russian vote” on 22 April (the birthday of Vladimir Lenin) where Russians would be asked whether they supported the constitutional changes or not. Putin called for Russian citizens to vote on the entire package of amendments and stated that only after such a vote had taken place would a final decision be made. Yet it is important to note that such a vote would not be legally binding and Putin could choose to ignore the results should he wish.

But such a scenario seems doubtful. While Putin’s approval rating dropped from 69% in February to 63% in March, polls by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM) and the independent Levada Centre indicate that most Russians would support the constitutional overhaul. VCIOM recorded that 67-68% of participants would vote for the changes while just 27-30% would vote against, and the Levada Centre reported that 45% would support the amendments while 41% would oppose them. Constitutional amendments outlawing gay-marriage, strengthening the Russian pension and mentioning a “belief in God” as one of the key Russian values appear to have won the support of many citizens, along with other changes to emphasise the primacy of Russian laws over international laws. While the vote has been postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that when it does take place in the future, Russia’s population will vote through the proposed amendments and provide Putin with the opportunity to become the longest serving ruler of Russia since Peter the Great.

While dissidents such as Alexei Navalny have spoken out against the constitutional overhaul and protests have been staged, Kremlin opposition groups remain weak and fragmented. The two main parties who portray themselves as the primary opposition forces – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation – generally end up following the Kremlin line, and dissidents such as Navalny and Ilya Yashin have been targeted relentlessly by state-run media outlets and have been repeatedly imprisoned on falsified charges.

As noted above, Putin’s approval rating has dropped in recent months following protests over the Kremlin’s decision to raise the retirement age and fatigue over the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to hit the country hard with Russia’s oil and gas markets contracting significantly. It is anticipated that the Russian economy will shrink considerably and this will have a serious impact on the lives of ordinary Russians who are already feeling the bite of the country’s economic downturn. However, Putin still enjoys broad public support and the lack of a cohesive opposition means that his position is more-or-less secure. It is therefore all but certain that he will be the one to steer the Russian Federation through these turbulent times and beyond into the foreseeable future. With the economy struggling, media and political repression increasing by the month and the country rapidly reversing back towards ‘traditional’ social norms, such an outlook is bleak for the millions of Russians longing for an end to Putin’s kleptocracy.

Impact on the Rest of the World

While it is difficult to predict the exact direction Russian foreign policy will take, another 14 years of Putin indicates that there will be a significant degree of continuity. The idea of a potential rapprochement between Russia and the West appears slim now and it is likely we will see Russia continue to pursue a similar foreign policy strategy. One of the fundamentals of Putin’s presidency has been his commitment to ‘great power politics’. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia saw its international standing diminish significantly and Putin has endeavoured to rectify this. Consequently, the Kremlin has increasingly involved itself in international affairs and conflicts across the world, and has attempted to expand Russian influence into the peripheries of the Russian Federation – such as in Syria and in the Arctic where Russia has become the most significant Arctic power. Moscow has also invested heavily in defence and renovated its security forces considerably in recent years. Military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine have further demonstrated that the Kremlin is willing and capable to revise the international order when it deems necessary.

Additionally, in recent years the Kremlin has also utilised ‘soft power’ (co-option via economic and cultural means rather than coercion) to project influence into neighbouring states, while it has also pursued destabilisation and disinformation campaigns in Europe. Russia was famously found to have interfered in the 2016 American election and has been accused of launching an increasing number of cyber-attacks in states such as Estonia, Ukraine and Georgia. The ‘Sandworm Unit’ has been found to perpetrate most of the attacks and Moscow has found them an increasingly useful tool to undermine its neighbours.

The Putin administration has also been engaged in ‘memory wars’ with the EU and various European nations. In September 2019, the EU passed a resolution accusing Russia of failing in its engagement with its past and called for it to repent for the Soviet collaboration with Nazi Germany which facilitated the outbreak of World War II. States such as Poland have accused the Soviet Union of being directly culpable for the outbreak of war in recent legislation and the Kremlin has countered with its own interpretation of events, highlighting the USSR’s role in defeating the Axis Powers and portraying the Soviets as the liberators of Europe. Putin has played a key role in propagating the Russian interpretation of events and with one of the constitutional amendments declaring that it is the duty of the state to “protect historical truth”, it is clear that the Kremlin will continue to contest what it deems are distortions of history.

While analysing Putin’s ‘grand strategy’, Anne Applebaum argued in 2018 that “we should be prepared for more to come”. With Putin now legally eligible to retain the Russian presidency for the foreseeable future, Applebaum’s contention looks set to ring true. Any hopes of an alternate course for Russia have surely been dashed by the constitutional overhaul and it appears that the future will hold significantly more continuity than change for the country both internally and externally.

Image source: www.kremlin.ru via CC BY 4.0

About Hamish Cruickshank

Hamish Cruickshank has an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Edinburgh and recently completed a master’s degree with distinction at the University of Amsterdam where he specialised in Russian and Eastern European Affairs. He produced his master’s thesis on Russia’s Arctic turn and examined the transforming security dynamics of the High North. Hamish has a strong interest in international relations and security studies and has conducted considerable research on Russian foreign policy, Eurasian geopolitics and Arctic security.