There are many in mainstream media who insist that the dissonant voices about Vladimir Putin’s Russia whom they derogatively call “useful idiots” are no more than propagandists for the Kremlin.
As a card-carrying member of the “friends of Russia” club, I have in the past never hesitated to acknowledge that perhaps 10% of our number indeed have no interest in following the facts wherever they may lead and spreading truth as they see it. Instead they argue from “the end justifies the means” reasoning or “what-about-ism.” I said as much in reporting on my participation in the international election monitoring of the 18 March 2018 presidential elections where I and 20 other foreigners were sent to the Crimea and delivered our conclusions that same evening at a press conference in one of the mayoral buildings in Simferopol.
However, I believe that the majority of my peers in “friends of Russia” strive to be objective and seek the microphone only in order to denounce the rampant Russophobia and dangerous vilification of Mr. Putin in the major media of the West, all of which has greatly increased the chances of a war, unintended, unwanted but apocalyptic. Sometimes they even decide to speak truth to power, and it is in that spirit that I deliver my verdict below on the amendments to the Russia’s Fundamental Law now being prepared in the Duma and Federation Council under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin. The document which emerges is going to be put to a nationwide referendum on 22 April, a vote which once again I may be watching on the spot as an international observer.
From the moment President Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address to Russia’s bicameral legislature in mid-January announcing plans for revising the Constitution, there was heated speculation in the West that the sole purpose of the exercise was to secure his continuation in power after the current mandate expires in 2024. In fact, such a conclusion had no basis in the sketchy plans for updating the Constitution mentioned in the president’s address. What stood out in that was the wish to readjust the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government in the direction of a “responsible” cabinet which the legislature would henceforth help select. This was not yet parliamentary government, but it would amount to a very significant shift away from the imperial presidency which Boris Yeltsin enshrined in the 1993 constitution which he rammed through over the ashes of a rebellious Duma. Other new privileges would be ceded to the upper house, and the judiciary also stood to gain in stature from Mr. Putin’s brief overview of 15 January.
In all of this, the president would be voluntarily giving up some of his political might with four years still remaining in his term. It was easy to argue, as I did in my first analysis of the planned reforms, that he was motivated by the long term interests of the country rather than by his own personal interests. By reducing somewhat the prerogatives of the presidency, he was ensuring that the job could be performed by followers of less stellar qualities than his own. Essential checks and balances would be introduced into the system.
The only reform item which did not fit well with my judgment on the selflessness of Putin’s reform initiative was the mention of some new, still unspecified role for the State Council, a deliberative body consisting of the governors of the administrative ‘objects’ of the Federation which has met only once or twice a year. Our pundits quickly focused on how Vladimir Vladimirovich might choose to pilot the ship of state after 2024 from such a body, assuming he did not remain in the presidency by hook or crook.
Step two in the preparation of the Constitutional amendment was the formation of a committee nominally drawn from leading personalities from patriotic society such as virtuoso pianist Denis Matsuev and Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, as well as legal experts to consider amendments in addition to those first named by the President. Step three has been the review in the legislature of a draft text on amendments which Putin approved with an eye to both the committee’s recommendations and to the great many suggestions sent directly to his administration from the general public or passed along to him during his numerous consultations with ordinary people in the countryside at the Russian equivalent of town hall meetings.
The net result of all the suggestions which were adopted into the draft law on amendments to the Constitution as it made its way to the Duma and through the Duma has been to introduce a great many social, cultural and identity politics propositions into the Constitution. These include the traditional definition of marriage as the union of a male and female, mention of God and ancient national traditions, specifying Russian as the national language, guarantees of pension indexation and social benefits, a prohibition on giving up any territory of the Russian Federation, establishing the primacy of national legislation over international law, and much more in a similar vein.
Critics in the West have remarked that all of these points are calculated to appeal to broad swathes of the population, thereby ensuring a heavy turnout at the voting urns in April and an enthusiastic “yes” majority, when the reform would also contain, they predicted, a key point on Vladimir Putin’s political future. That was only cynical speculation…until an event two days ago, on 10 March, when the draft law on amendments to the Constitution reached a milestone in its final “reading” in the Duma.
In this last stage, a couple of United Russia legislators pitched to the house changes having great significance, so much so, that Vladimir Putin was called in to deliver his opinion on their suitability. One would have required that the State Duma be dissolved and new elections be called if the constitutional reform passes the referendum. This Putin decided was unnecessary and inappropriate, since the sitting Duma was duly elected and fully competent. The other, presented to the house by the celebrated woman astronaut turned politician Valentina Tereshkova, called for either removing the limitation in the Constitution to two terms in office for the president or to set back the clock to zero following passage of the amendments on 22 April, so that the incumbent might remain in office until 2036. Here Putin rejected the first idea but tentatively accepted the second, subject to its being examined and approved by the Constitutional Court.
All of this was shown in full on Russian state television which, over the past couple of weeks, has given extraordinary live coverage to the Duma deliberations on the amendments to the Constitution, so that the reform finally bypassed Ukraine as the television subject of the day.
Some analysts in the “friends of Russia” camp have called attention to the seemingly impromptu decision of Putin on serving in the presidency after 2024. However, he spoke rather extensively on the subject before the house, suggesting, to my mind, that this was all well choreographed in advance.
In particular, Putin explained in what we may consider advanced dialectics both why a lengthy stay in office by a president might be justified by circumstances and why eventually this might prompt political elites to put an end to open-ended rule. He spoke about both sides to the question with reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the United States: a president who took office at a time of national crisis, the Great Depression, followed by World War II. These emergencies required a firm hand on the tiller. But at the end of FDR’s four terms, the American political establishment decided that alternation in power was the greater virtue for normal times and set a limit of two terms in office.
Putin likened the national emergency in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union to the situation that justified FDR’s long tenure. And he intimated that given the turbulence in the world today having a guarantor of continued stability within the country remained paramount. He also invoked historical traditions of Russia which always favored a strong ruler such as he has been. The sugar coating which he chose to offer is that he might continue in office only if he won ‘competitive’ elections for the office, not by acclamation. However, there are more than a few critics who will find the notion of competitive presidential elections in Russia to be utterly unconvincing so long as Putin, the father of his country, is on the ballot.
Meanwhile, these arguments for his continued rule after 2024 fly in the face of Putin’s repeated denials that he would remain in power into his dotage, repeating the sad experience of Leonid Brezhnev.
Some of my peers are “flummoxed” by what has occurred this week. I am merely saddened by this show of human folly.
I will say unequivocally that by agreeing to a constitutional amendment resetting his time in office to zero, Putin has enraged many members of the ruling elites and armed his long time opponents with real and not invented reasons to be rid of him. The result will likely be domestic strife and instability, quite the opposite of what he intends. Indeed it will put in question his entire political legacy.
Let us hope that Vladimir Vladimirovich will pause to reflect on this decision and quietly instruct the Constitutional Court to do what is necessary: declare the proposed amendment invalid.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020