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Decoding Putin’s 2020 Power Move

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BAM! Russian President Vladimir Putin has initiated what is perhaps the biggest political shakeup in Russia since he switched from Prime Minister to President to extend his rule in 2008. While his previous power-grab gambit has since inspired a number of autocrats around the world, Putin is developing a new strategy in the midst of his last presidential term, which ends in 2024.
According to the latest poll from Levada Center (conducted in December 2019), only 38% of respondents said they would vote for Putin if a presidential election were held next Sunday. So as the President’s popularity wanes and public frustration builds over the lack of reforms and declining living standards in resource-rich Russia, Putin is looking to safeguard his power. And while the extent and success of his new tricks will not be revealed for months (if not years) to come, his latest antics have been a shock for folks both at home and abroad.
Luckily, we’ve got you covered with the ultimate brief, sourcing the best indigenous opinions and analysis of Putin’s 2020 power move, courtesy of Novaya Gazeta.
Want to get the full story? Click the links below for full-length articles in Russian.

Russia’s new tsar?

Illustration: Peter Saroukhanov / Novaya Gazeta

State of the nation. President Putin proposed sweeping changes to the Russian Constitution during his state of the nation address on January 15, 2020. Three hours later, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced his resignation and the dissolution of the cabinet. Putin rounded out the day by naming his new Prime Minister – the virtually unknown head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin.

Russia’s new tsar. “The essence of the constitutional reforms President Putin proposed is very simple: there will be a tsar in Russia. And everyone knows his name. What the tsar’s title will be – President, Head of the State Council or Head of the Security Council – he has yet to decide,” writes Novaya Gazeta columnist Yuliya Latynina.

‘Do as Stalin.’ The way she sees it, Putin had four options. The first, union with Belarus, appears to have already failed amid public protests in Minsk. The second option would be a parliamentary republic, and the third would be the removal of the phrase “consecutive” from the article on the limit for presidential terms (which would also require a referendum, as Latynina points out). “The fourth is the path of Joseph Stalin,” Latynina concludes. “Stalin was never the president, prime minister, chancellor, tsar or emperor. He was merely a modest general secretary.”

Last days of ‘super-presidential’ republic. “The Kremlin recognized that the 2024 problem was unsolvable under the existing constitutional order,” explains our Politics Editor, Kirill Martynov. He thinks that the “super-presidential republic” that Putin managed to consolidate over the last 20 years is “living out its last months.” And while the President may be referring to this massive overhaul of the Constitution as simply “changes,” his proposal would essentially involve adopting a new foundational law for Russia.

Snap elections to consolidate power might be coming soon. “The role of Vladimir Putin himself in the new configuration of power isn’t clear yet; there’s wide space for maneuver,” Martynov writes. “In September 2020, along with a referendum on changing the Constitution, there could be snap parliamentary elections. In 2021 – presidential elections with a new mandate.”

Don’t read too much into the new PM. While some have speculated that Putin is planning a repeat of 2008, Martynov says that switching places with PM Medvedev will not work the second time around. “[The] Medvedev government resigned for no apparent reason. It then follows that the post of unpopular Prime Minister Medvedev cannot be directly transferred to President Putin,” Martynov explains. “[This kind of] ‘reverse castling’ has been recognized as inadvisable and politically dangerous.” Instead, Putin has chosen a new, “technocratic” Prime Minister – the tech-obsessed tax official Mikhail Mishustin – because he is a) professional and b) not very popular.

New title, same Putin. “Vladimir Putin has three ‘escape routes’ after 2024: the president’s chair, Duma speaker, or head of the State Council. It will be possible to understand which ‘escape route’ will become the main one when the working group – [which has] already been created in the Kremlin – makes the text of the amendments to the Constitution public,” – our journalist Victor Khamraev in his Novaya Gazeta op-ed.

Federation destroyed. “The most important and meaningful thing that can be taken from [Putin’s] address is the destruction of the federation,” says law professor Elena Lukyanova, from the Higher School of Economics. She sees the results of the constitutional changes Putin proposed as “a fatal reduction in the powers of the regional authorities, the defeat of local self-government, a distortion of the principle of public authority, the loss of rights and a violation of the principle of the equality of citizens.” What’s more, she says that the State Council being raised above the Parliament will destroy the country’s “imitation parliamentarianism.”

The 1993 Constitution authors are confused. “There are many puzzles in the message to the working group. How to combine the priorities of the Russian Constitution and the mandatory fulfillment of the European Court acts within the framework of the European Convention. And what to do with the State Council if Putin ceases to be president, because under the Constitution only the president ‘determines the direction of politics,’ and any council under him is just an advisory body” – Tamara Morshchakova and Mikhail Krasnov, lawyers and authors of the 1993 Constitution.

And other smoke screens. “What we heard isn’t any kind of parliamentary system, it’s just a change in the form of manipulation, which will not work without Putin,” argues political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky. In his opinion, the proposed changes that would give Russian legislation priority over international law are the most powerful of all. But because this paragraph is located in a protected section of the Constitution, it’s not within the power of the Federal Assembly to change it. Instead, Pavlovsky suspects that this item could be a red herring, meant to divert attention and provoke discussions, “only to discard it later.”

A lot to unpack, huh? Don’t worry — we will keep you posted.


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— The Novaya Gazeta Newsletter Team

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