The Russian president's constitutional proposals have been widely misinterpreted
The Russia President’s State of the Nation address is usually quite a banal affair. But this year, it commanded both domestic and international headlines after Vladimir Putin called for changes to the 25-year old post-Soviet constitution and a referendum to approve them. Shortly thereafter, the Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and his government upped and resigned en masse.
Medvedev was moved sideways to become deputy chairman of the National Security Council — a body that is, like Russia’s state of the nation address, modelled on its US equivalent — and a new government is supposed to be in place within two weeks.
Cue the excited talk about Putin arrogating to himself additional, even Tsar-like, powers and rigging the constitution to allow himself to remain in power beyond the end of his current term in 2024.
That is certainly one way of looking at it, especially for the many people in Russia and abroad who are convinced that Putin has no intention of leaving power, ever. Examining what Putin actually said in his speech about changing the constitution, however, I interpreted it rather differently. He was quite clear that the two-term limit for presidents would remain. What would change would be the balance between president and parliament (the duma), with power shifting in favour of the Duma.
This looks more like a President trying to prepare for the succession in good time, rather than intent on “going on and on”. And the timing, a full four years before he is due to leave power, suggests that he he wants to use the popular support he still enjoys — and could start to lose as rivals started jockeying for the presidency — to diminish the power of the presidency and make it hard for a new President to change things back without a similar mandate.
Exactly what Putin has in mind should become clearer, depending on who becomes the next Prime Minister and the composition of the new government. But it should not be taken for granted that Dmitry Medvedev is being sidelined. As deputy head of the Security Council, he could be in a stronger position to succeed Putin as President than if he were still prime minister — a job that can — even in Russia — be hazardous for anyone seeking higher office.
Alternatively, the changes could be a chance for Putin to try out someone else as a possible successor. One contender could be the current mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin; another the current defence minister, Sergei Shoigu. Or indeed, given that Putin himself was almost unknown when he became prime minister and Boris Yeltsin’s successor, it could be someone equally unexpected, perhaps from the regions.
One point to be emphasised, though, is that the composition of Putin’s administrations hitherto has been remarkably stable and, as a leader, he is distinctly risk-averse. This looks like the first move in an attempt to preserve stability through a political transition that also has the potential to be anything but.