January 15, 2020 will be remembered as the start of the transition to a new political configuration in Russia that Vladimir Putin will leave behind when his term in office ends four years hence. The prospective changes were announced in the last third of Putin’s 75-minute annual Address to the Federal Assembly, Russia’s bicameral legislature. The seriousness and immediacy of the changes were confirmed by the announcement several hours later that Premier Dimitri Medvedev and the entire Russian cabinet had tendered their resignations so as to free the President’s hands to proceed with implementation of the intent of the announced constitutional changes at once, even before the Working Group on those changes was formed, not to mention the drafting of laws framing their implementation or the planned referendum on the changes to follow before their promulgation, which was also mentioned in the Address.
The result of these various developments was shock and awe in the broad community of Russia Watchers. But the commentators soon found their feet and speculation on what was pending came back with a roar.
Nearly all political commentaries that I have read over the past 24 hours have evaluated the intent of the announced changes in terms of the political fortunes of one man, Vladimir Putin. The searchlights have been pointed here and there to determine where in the new organogram Mr. Putin may sit after 2024. This is quite understandable if one considers the speculation over Putin’s alleged ambition to rule Russia for life.
Indeed, ever since his re-election to the presidency in March 2018, there has been heated speculation among Vladimir Putin’s many detractors at home and abroad over whether he would honor the constitutional prohibition on serving more than two consecutive terms in office. Hence, his political enemies such as Mikhail Kasyanov used the occasion yesterday to crow that they had been right all along, and that we were witnessing yesterday step one to Putin’s holding on to a revised presidency. Such assertions flew in the face of the President’s direct statement that he had no objection to the restriction on presidential service, which will remain in force. So the question naturally arose among other commentators: what will be his new perch? Would it be as prime minister? As head of the to-be-strengthened State Council, an institution that till now has been off the organizational charts of the federal government? Or still somewhere else, as the head of a con-federal union with Belarus, for example.
In the analysis which I offer here, I will attempt to understand what is afoot more broadly, bringing in elements from the Address which bear on Putin’s intent but seem to have been ignored in the stampede to take the measure by one yardstick only.
What emerges from my approach as set out below is a tentative and still partially self-contradictory constitutional restructuring to assure continuity of a strong, centralized and deeply patriotic federal government with or without Mr. Putin. Most important of all, it is a restructuring that begins at once, so that it can consolidate in the coming four years of transition, allowing all the political actors to grow into new roles of greater responsibility and prove their mettle under the watchful eye of the sitting president.
The proposed constitutional reform will re-calibrate the relations between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the federal government. The greatest beneficiary of these changes will be the legislature, particularly the State Duma, or lower house, which will assume powers closely approximating those in a parliamentary democracy.
Up to now, under the Constitution introduced in 1993 by Boris Yeltsin following his bloody suppression of a rebellious Duma, the Russian federal government closely resembled the tsarist state under Nicholas II when a parliament was first introduced in what had been an autocracy and the head of state retained the right to appoint the cabinet which was responsible solely to him. Henceforth, per Putin’s revisions to the Constitution, the premier and federal ministers will be named by the Duma. The President will formally confirm them in office; he has no right to refuse the appointments, though he can later remove them for failure to perform.
There is no mention in Putin’s sketchy outline of the new order whether the cabinet will be drawn from among members of parliament or from outside, as is presently the case. A tip-off on how open this issue remains is that the man Putin appointed later in the day to replace Medvedev as premier is precisely a technocrat, with no clear political affiliation or legislative experience, Mikhail V Mishustin, the long-serving head of the Federal Tax Service. However, this may be merely a tactical measure to facilitate the filling of the cabinet with ministers from precisely the political milieu within the Duma. If so, it worked well, because we are told that Mishustin’s candidacy, which will be reviewed by the Duma today, met with general acceptance.
To understand what comes next, you have to take into account a vitally important statement which Putin made a few moments before he set out his proposed constitutional reforms. He told his audience that his experience meeting with the leaders of the various Duma parties at regular intervals every few weeks showed that all were deeply patriotic and working for the good of the country. Accordingly, he said that all Duma parties should participate in the formation of the cabinet.
And so, we are likely to see in the coming days that candidates for a number of federal ministries in the new, post-Medvedev cabinet will be drawn precisely from parties other than United Russia. In effect, without introducing the word “coalition” into his vocabulary, Vladimir Putin has set the stage for the creation of a grand coalition to succeed the rule of one party, United Russia, over which Dimitri Medvedev was the nominal chairman. It is highly relevant to note that, unlike Putin, whose popularity as measured by opinion polls has returned to well above 60% in recent months, the United Russia party has seen its popular support continue to erode so that its ability to hold a parliamentary majority after the next general elections is very much in doubt. The new grand coalition will ensure political continuity and stability in all eventualities.
This innovation at the level of federal ministers has its antecedents which the community of Russia Watchers, focused as it is on one man, has apparently failed to remark: for some time now, there has been a certain power sharing with the minority parties at the level of committee chairmanships within the Duma.
This power sharing has existed at the party level and also in gender terms, with some chairmanships dealt out to women who happened also to be Communist, for example. I have in mind the chairwoman of the committee on family policy. Meanwhile, the chairmanship of the highly visible committee on foreign relations was, after the last parliamentary elections, removed from United Russia and handed to the nationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR.
We may see similar gestures of power sharing in the forthcoming announcements. At the same time, it is highly likely that key figures in the outgoing cabinet such as Sergei Lavrov at Foreign Affairs and Sergei Shoigu at Defense will be reinstated in the new cabinet given the overwhelming support they enjoy in the Duma across most if not all parties.
I mentioned above that the constitutional reforms proposed by Vladimir Putin are self-contradictory. That arises from his insistence in the Address that, given its size and diversity, the Russian Federation requires a strong, indeed preeminent presidential power. The point of possible conflict in future is his mention that the President sets the political agenda for the cabinet. That potentially flies in the face of a power configuration wherein the cabinet is named by the lower house. How this works while Putin is in office is no guarantee of how it will work when he vacates the presidency and a person of lesser prestige takes over.
Overall, the constitutional reforms and tilt towards a strong, functional legislature mark a sharp break with the rule by decree and struggle for control between parliament and president that Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin. Except for the brief premiership of Yevgeni Primakov in 1998, during the whole period from 1993 until his resignation on New Year’s eve, 1999, Yeltsin had largely ruled by decree and in full defiance of the oppositional, Communist controlled Duma. Step-by-step, Putin has encouraged the parliament to take greater responsibility and to raise the professionalism of its legislative initiative and framing of laws. Evidently he now hopes to reap the benefits of that policy as his political legacy.
In closing, I add here an observation on the Address to the Federal Assembly itself. Compared to recent years, it was shorter and was defined by near total concentration on domestic issues of immediate interest to the broad population. Aside from the usual complement of generalities on how the government will strive to improve the investment climate and raise GDP by more than 5% annually before Putin leaves office, there were numerous specific actions, some of them postdated to January 1, 2020 that will put money in the pockets of the still largely underpaid Russian working class in government service and in private employment. These measures have all been budgeted for and are fully within the power of the President to implement.
The measures are specifically aimed at correcting Russia’s demographic challenge through enhancement to “maternal capital” disbursements. In effect, for families with two or more children, the total ad hoc allotment in cash and forgiveness of mortgage loans will amount to as much as 1 million rubles (nearly 15,000 euros), which is the equivalent of 50% of the cost of a typical apartment or house in provincial Russia. Other measures will ease the burden of child-rearing through age seven by monthly payments of 11,000 rubles (160 euros) per child to those at the bottom of the wage scale. Then there are promised goods in kind – universal provision of free hot meals to all children in elementary schools – starting in the new school year on September 1, 2020. The importance of these measures taken together in raising the living standards of a large swathe of the Russian population cannot be overstated.
In effect, domestic concerns were the subject of 99% of the speech. Putin devoted less than a minute to the international environment, foreign relations and military affairs, which in the past had consumed more than a third of his Addresses. He contented himself to remark that thanks to the achievements of Russia’s military renewal, meaning, of course, its new arsenal of hypersonic rockets, the country’s security has been assured for the coming decade or more.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020