Further Thoughts: Vladimir Putin’s Planned Constitutional Changes

I had the good fortune to be among the first non-mainstream commentators to publish an in-depth analysis of the planned constitutional amendments Vladimir Putin set out on Wednesday in his annual Address to Russia’s bicameral legislature. “Vladimir Putin Plans His Succession” was a runaway success in readership, attracting many times the normal daily number of visitors to my website in a global audience that reached 82 countries. I owe this success in large part to the generous references to my article made by bloggers with large established audiences, in particular to investment analyst Tom Luongo of Gold, Goats ‘n Guns (re-broadcast by Tyler Durden’s zerohedge.com) and to the Canadian retired diplomat and active online commentator Patrick Armstrong, who commands several sites. The article was also re-posted in full by Antiwar.com, who frequently carry my essays, as well as by Johnson’s Russia List, which has a select audience among U.S. universities.

Now, in these “further thoughts” I will address several important issues surrounding the planned constitutional reforms which I did not have the time or space to deal with in my first essay. Moreover, I must consider here elements of the ongoing flow of news from Russia bearing on any evaluation of the reforms, namely the results of the first meeting of the 75-member Working Group on constitutional change which Vladimir Putin convened already on Thursday and the exchanges between the incoming prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and members of the State Duma during and after his confirmation hearings.

I will deal in this essay mainly with significant matters that have not been discussed in the alternative media, not to mention in the establishment media, both of which have devoted a great number of column inches to the reforms since I first went to press.

With regard to the establishment media, it bears mention that within 24 hours of the President’s Address several newspapers of record in the United States and England published articles with a more open-minded evaluation of what is afoot than the universal opprobrium and suspicion with which Putin’s initiatives first met in the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Financial Times. Several of these articles which are more favorably disposed to Putin’s possible intent or are advocating “wait and see” were quoted in Johnson’s Russia List: the publishers include the Christian Science Monitor, The Independent (UK) and The Daily Telegraph (UK).

The Washington Post, which published a flurry of articles about the proposed constitutional changes, all negative, nonetheless permitted itself to give one article the following very restrained title: “Putin’s plans for post-presidency could see him wielding influence for life.” “Wielding influence” is a far cry from the stranglehold on Russian politics by which the Post and the great majority of its peers characterize the “Putin regime.” It would indeed be odd if a statesman of Putin’s accomplishments and popularity were to retire to a monastery after leaving the presidency.

At the same time, in defiance of more neutral and cautious positions emerging among some peers, other leading publications, including The Economist and The Financial Times have doubled down and yesterday published articles or editorials arguing why what Putin has presented as a move to greater democracy, checks and balances, hence “rule of law,” in actuality is merely a ruse to perpetuate his rule in another guise.

The most egregious offender in this regard has to be Tony Barber, the outgoing, long serving chief editor of the Financial Times whose last days in office passed this week. His opinion article “Putin revamp hinges on the illusion behind Russia’s social contract” not only tramples on any possibility of good intentions in the reform but trashes the entire Russian political system past, present and future, all of which he calls an ‘illusion.’ To my thinking, in his last act as editor Barber is paying penance and seeking the applause of the Russophobe majority in UK journalism, having betrayed them by his full page interview with Vladimir Putin published on 27 June 2019, the day before the opening of the G-20 gathering in Osaka wherein Putin famously declared that liberalism had ‘outlived its purpose’ and upstaged the event before it opened.

But let us move on. I wish to introduce here a couple of considerations, acid tests in my view, for whether we interpret Mr. Putin’s planned reforms in black, white or shades of gray in between. The answers will likely come in the next few days or weeks.

The first is how quickly the reforms will be promulgated and implemented. The second is whether Duma members are drawn into the new cabinet that Prime Minister Mishustin is going to roll out.

Given that the President lost no time in assembling the Working Group of academics and scientists, sportsmen, musicians, other leading public personalities….as well as experts in constitutional law, it seems likely that he intends to proceed with the reform very quickly. An article in TASS which came out still on the 16th informs us that the plebiscite on the constitutional reforms is planned to be held before 1 May. Other sources say with less precision that it could come “some time before the year’s end.”

In any case, the real question is when the reforms will take effect. If they are implemented with immediate effect and Putin’s constitutionally stipulated powers are reduced while the parliament’s powers are increased accordingly, then we will be witnesses to his voluntarily rescinding power or sharing it with others for the sake of spreading the responsibility for successful governance and ensuring stable transition when he leaves office four years hence. That would put paid to any notion whatsoever of these reforms being a ruse.

The question of the composition of the Mishustin cabinet and of any future cabinet following promulgation of the reforms comes down to one point: will it consist solely of specialists or generalists brought in to fill ministerial posts on the basis of their party affiliations or on the contrary, on the basis of their neutered status as technocrats, as has been the case in Russian governments ever since the 1993 Constitution was introduced by Boris Yeltsin, or will it include some living, breathing parliamentarians. In the former case, such a cabinet will be responsible to the parliament but will not represent a shift to full parliamentary democracy.

I am betting that Mishustin will nominate as federal ministers some leaders and/or members of the Duma from the minority parties, meaning the Communists, LDPR and Just Russia to sit alongside the strongest, most respected United Russia people from the outgoing cabinet of Dimitri Medvedev. If it were only a question of closer consultation with these parties over who is nominated from outside the Duma’s ranks, then there would be less sense to the enthusiastic backing all parties (except the Communists) gave to Mishustin’s candidacy when the vote was held in the lower house. Moreover, watching the behavior of Duma members appearing on Russian state television news in the past couple of days indicates a greater assertiveness and self-confidence than was ever the case till now.

It is very easy to consider extending invitations to the Communists or Just Russia to fill ministries in the social domain – education, culture, social welfare, even economic development. In such ministries they might very well be more productive than the United Russia officials they would replace. As for LDPR, although they have long called for Sergei Lavrov’s scalp, it is hard to see their taking over from the world’s most experienced diplomat who enjoys the full confidence of the President. However, some ministerial position relating to the military industry, in particular I can imagine their replacing the rather dimwitted Dimitri Rogozin, who never exercised proper control of Russia’s corruption plagued construction site at the missile launch center Vostochny. In all such cases, the changes would definitely enhance the authority and the determination of the Russian federal government and so play into the plans of Vladimir Putin in the closing years of his term of office.

Although it is early to say with certainty how sincere Vladimir Putin is in his plan to further democratize Russian governance through a more balanced distribution of power between the three branches of government, there are a couple of irreconcilable problems with the notion that the announced constitutional reforms are all about the future political fortunes of one man, Vladimir Putin. These tend to turn all of the severe judgments of our mainstream media into gibberish.

Firstly, why would he propose changes in the Fundamental Law now, 4 years before he leaves office? Our mainstream media mention the maneuver by the President Nursultan Nazarbayev to hold onto guiding power in Kazakhstan by assuming a purpose created post when he resigned from the presidency in May 2019. However, that subterfuge was sprung on the public at the last minute. Game playing of this sort four years in advance of departure would only be an invitation to all political forces in the country to outmaneuver the Leader and frustrate his ambition. They would have all the necessary time to mobilize and win.

Secondly, why if he has resolved to honor the constitutionally mandated limitation on two consecutive terms in office would Putin insist that the President retain supreme power of the executive including the right to remove his prime minister? He would thereby be condemning himself to precarious tenure if indeed it was his intention to move back to the premiership after leaving the presidency.

These questions are not raised, let alone answered by our mainstream media for whom logic, like facts on the ground, is an irrelevancy to arriving at their predetermined conclusions.

One of the remarkable changes in the Constitution that Vladimir Putin proposed on 15 January relates to qualifications to hold senior positions in the federal government, including deputies to the State Duma and Federation Council. They will be prohibited from holding foreign passports or permanent residency rights abroad. Putin set still more stringent requirements for candidates to the presidency: they must never have held foreign citizenship or residency rights, and they must have lived in Russia continuously for 25 years before becoming candidates for the nation’s highest office.

Our Putin-phobic international press and even some card-carrying members of the alternative media have seen this initiative as directed against several specific harsh critics of the President and his “regime.” In particular they mention Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former oligarch now living in exile in Switzerland but keen to reenter Russian political life, and Alexei Navalny, the blogger and anti-corruption crusader who once in the heady days following the faulty Duma elections of December 2011 rode the wave of mass street protests that turned ugly. Navalny might come under the ban for having spent time on a study grant in the USA.

Both gentlemen are the darlings of the Western liberal press that hubristically claims the right to decide for Russians who is the real Opposition to the “Putin regime” and who is just window dressing. No matter that they and other Liberals do not garner more than 1% in Russia’s national polls.

I see these restrictions as being directed instead against the great number of wealthy Russians who have that second or third passport to hedge their bets against some disaster befalling their homeland, such as for example a return of the Communists to power, even if only within the context of a parliamentary democracy. That goes also for their gilded youth who have been educated in Britain and elsewhere abroad and whose patriotism to the land of their birth might well be dubious. Even putting aside that subjective factor, there remains the objective factor that Americans like so much to bring up with respect to Donald Trump: these Russians with feet in both camps are easily subject to blackmail by a foreign government.

Moreover, there is still another dimension to the question that no one in the Russia Watch community has mentioned: these proposed restrictions are not drawn from thin air; their relevance comes from the experience of the 2018 presidential elections when two prominent candidates fell afoul of the restrictions Putin is now proposing. These were Pavel Grudinin, the candidate of the Communist Party and of the united left, and Boris Titov, head of the Party of Growth. In the midst of the campaign, when Grudinin’s star was rising and it looked as though he might win enough votes to force a second round in the elections, investigative reporting by Russian state television turned up the unpleasant fact that Grudinin’s wife owns a house in Latvia and has taken Latvian citizenship. Presumably, Latvia would be his chosen ‘emergency landing’ airport if he got into trouble in Russia. That was not the only dirt turned up: it also appeared he had not declared a substantial personal holding of gold and cash in a Swiss bank, and he was charged with misrepresenting the source of wealth of the farming enterprise he heads in the Moscow suburbs, so that his electoral platform built on generalizing this success was fraudulent. As for Titov, who otherwise is a genuine patriot as regards Russian agriculture, in which his personal fortune is heavily invested, and who is and has for some time been the Ombudsman for Russian business, there is also a dark side: he did not participate in several of the televised debates during the month before election day, 18 March, because he was busy looking after his personal affairs in London, where his children live.

Here we have the real and concrete reasons for Putin’s proposals. If these violations could take place under his nose, what kind of candidates for the presidency might we find on the short lists in the post-Putin future were there to be no constitutional prohibition as now will be voted upon.

Finally, let us consider who is Mikhail Mishustin, the man whom Putin nominated Wednesday to replace Medvedev as premier.

To its credit, The New York Times online edition yesterday carried an informative portrait of the man written by The Associated Press: “Next Russian PM A Career Bureaucrat With No Political Desire.” The article is valuable because it details the very important administrative and technological reforms Mishustin has overseen during his ten years at the head of the Federal Tax Service which resulted in greatly increased tax compliance and revenue flows to the Treasury through implementation of Information Technologies. In fact, the Russian Tax Service is today one of the most technically advanced in the world. It has real time receipt and analysis of every VAT imposable transaction in the country, whether the sale of a cup of coffee in a hotel lobby or a multi-million dollar transaction by some major industrial company. Fraud and corruption have been virtually extirpated from its domain.

The author of the NYT-AP article correctly notes that Mishustin holds a doctorate in the IT field. All of this gives him the expert knowledge to do what the technophile prime minister Dimitri Medvedev sought to do over the past six years, namely to bring Russian government and society into the digital age, though with very limited success due to his training as a lawyer, not a computer engineer or professional manager.

In this context it is interesting to note from an article posted on the news agency RBC’s website that at the top of the list of priorities named by Mishustin during his interpellation by the Duma prior to the vote on his candidacy is “the digitalization of the economy and conversion of the state into a “digital platform.” The National Projects that Vladimir Putin imposed on the government back in May 2018 at the start of his new term in office are in second place. Next came institutional reform, followed by removal of restrictions hindering business. Given these facts about the man , it would be naïve to speak of Mishustin as some sniveling bureaucrat. We shall see in the months ahead whether he can finally give some traction to the long set goal of speeding up Russian productivity and GDP growth per capita, the precondition for growing prosperity in the broad population.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

5 thoughts on “Further Thoughts: Vladimir Putin’s Planned Constitutional Changes”

  1. Fascinating follow-up article.

    If Russia’s leading politicians have one foot planted firmly outside Russia, its no surprise Putin and the Russian Deep State such as it may be, desire to set up an overwatch and ensure no leader that follows enjoys the power he enjoyed.

    The U.S./Western Deep State is about as eternal as eternal gets in geopolitics. It can outlast any single charismatic leader.

    Still, there had been talk once of dissolving the Jewish Autonomus Oblast; then that talk stopped. The Russian Far East will grow more powerful over time, though.

  2. Mikhail Mishustin could be an inspired appointment. A huge percentage of the Russian economy is reckoned to be ‘informal’ or on the black. i have seen figures of 45%.

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