There will be no second Vladimir Putin. The Russian President sent many messages in his State of the Nation Address on Jan. 15, some of which were unclear and immediately discussed by today’s kremlinologists. But a snack was clear. No one will have the broad range of constitutional powers that Putin has had in his four terms as Russian leader since 2000 – or indeed be able to serve four terms like Putin.
Putin has now set the roadmap for the transition that Russia should make in 2024, the year he ends his current and almost certainly final term as president. It’s a picture of continuity in which Putin can still play a central role, even if it’s not necessarily the most prominent one in public. Planned changes to the constitution will limit the power of the Russian presidency and also mean that Putin will not be able to run for president himself in 2024.
This will not be a repeat of 2008–2012, when Putin took over the post of prime minister and Dmitry Medvedev served as president for four years. Putin was clearly dissatisfied with the experience of this “tandemocracy,” as it was sometimes called, and how he could not fully control his protégé Medvedev.
As part of the planned changes unveiled on Wednesday, the Russian parliament will now appoint the prime minister and the government. The President will have the power to reject the nomination. Basically, the wings of the two other main functions of the state, that of the president and the prime minister, are being cut off, and they are neither as powerful as they are at the moment. All of this is approved in a referendum, which gives the changes a stamp of public legitimacy.
A third force, the State Council – currently a neglected advisory body in the Kremlin – will play a new, enhanced role before anyone else, although Putin has been a little reluctant about his new powers. “It would make sense to strengthen the status and role of the State Council in the Russian constitution,” Putin said on Wednesday. So it is more than likely that Putin will take on the role of President of the Council after serving his last constitutionally legal term as President.
Russia will continue to need a figurehead for the president, a new head of state with considerable powers, particularly in foreign and security policy. Who do Putin and his team want to take over in 2024? Probably not the new Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who is widely viewed as a mere technocrat. Mishustin, however, could grow into the role of the president’s heir, as Putin himself did more than 20 years ago when he was also more bureaucratic than a politician. (It’s important to note that Mishustin, who successfully ran the Russian Tax Service, an institution dedicated to both revenue collection and law enforcement, is half economist, half security officer.)
Another change announced on Wednesday was that the governors of Russia’s regions will be given more powers. It is more likely that the candidate for the next president will emerge from their ranks. Several candidates are already mentioned, including two security officials who served Putin in the Kremlin and are now governors: Alexey Dumin, who heads the Tula region, and Dmitry Mironov, the governor of Yaroslavl.
At first glance, Wednesday’s announcement was a humiliation for Medvedev, the eternal number two in Russian politics, who served as president four years after Putin’s first two terms and has now served another eight years as prime minister. His new job, vice chairman of the Security Council, appears to be a significant downgrade. In fact, the chairman of the Security Council is none other than Putin himself, which is why Medvedev only retains his second largest role in another capacity.
In the new, more complex constitutional configuration, the Kremlin Security Council (not to be confused with the State Council) will play a more important role as the arbiter of disputes and the center of strategic decisions. Occupied by Putin’s inner circle, it should be his personal Politburo for the next four years. As Putin’s deputy on that body, Medvedev remains the task of being a replacement option for the president – a well-known and reliable option for his successor if, as is so often the case in Russian judicial policy, something goes wrong. Medvedev is a safe, but not very inspiring option for Putin due to the lack of public popularity.
Russia’s main opposition leader, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, also received a message that he was not even allowed to take part in the competition. Another proposed constitutional amendment stipulates that any future president must have lived in Russia continuously for 25 years and never received a foreign passport or residence permit. That should throw Alexei Navalny, who studied at Yale University in the USA in 2010, out of the running. It also excludes other pro-Western figures from the Russian elite who have studied or worked in the West. The Russian patriots that make up Putin’s base will like this.
Overall, Putin’s speech should set the tone for the remaining swan song years of his presidency. The message to the public is that Putin’s titanic efforts to rebuild Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union have achieved their goal and that no other person will have to bear this burden of leadership. The leadership roles are divided. If we are looking for a parallel in Russian history, we have to go back to 1953, when a collective leadership was responsible for the Soviet Union a few years after the death of Joseph Stalin.
In addition, the newly amended constitution will bring Russian law to the fore, which means the country will no longer be bound by foreign legal restrictions from the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe, which has been irritating to the Russian government in particular for many years in upholding human rights complaints from Chechnya. This means an end, the Kremlin tells the Russians, to the practice of foreigners instructing the Russian government to change its behavior towards its citizens.
Russia is presented here as a kind of gilded cage: strongly defended on the outside, but strong and healthy on the inside. The security elite, the so-called Siloviki with a background in the KGB and other secret services such as Putin himself, retain their role in defending the state against foreign intervention. Capitalism and the market are preserved, but the goals of economic growth and technological modernization are entrusted to the government technocrats.
In 1999 Boris Yeltsin, who was afflicted by local opponents, prevailed against them and appointed a comparatively unknown personality, Vladimir Putin, as his prime minister and later successor. Yeltsin resigned earlier than expected and Putin won a smooth victory. Now Putin himself does not see any threat at home, but fears enemies abroad. His inner circle still fears that the West could use the remaining political institutions as weapons against him. By setting the rules for the 2024 transition and announcing these constitutional changes so early on, he is trying to get one step ahead of the game and misrepresent his main enemy, the West.