Master and Commander: What Is Behind The Vladimir Putin Announcements?

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Vladimir Putin
[Image via Wall Street Journal]

On Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev informed the public the nation’s entire government had resigned. The announcement came after President Vladimir Putin had announced he’s planning to introduce significant political reforms.

The project includes a strengthening of the role of Duma, the Russian parliament, at the expense of the presidency. However, this doesn’t mean any less power for Putin. The President is most likely preparing himself to be in charge even after his second consecutive term ends in 2024.

In Russia, the President is legally allowed to serve two consecutive terms. Unlike in the United States, after spending one term out of power, Russian Presidents may run for office again. When it comes to Putin, this could happen indefinitely.

Up until now, Vladimir Putin has been able to get over the legal loophole by governing together with Medvedev. When he left the presidency in 2008, he let his watchdog take his place while governing from the sidelines. In 2012, Medvedev stepped down and Putin won his reelection campaign. In 2018, he renewed his mandate for another six-year term.

One of the plans Putin announced for the proposed constitutional reform was to strengthen the position of the Prime Minister and Duma. However, Vlad’s objective is more likely to build and maintain a predominant role in Russian politics after his second consecutive term ends in 2024.

Medvedev’s being forced to resign on Wednesday didn’t mean he was opposed to Putin’s plans. In his declaration, the Prime Minister indicated the cabinet cleared the way for Putin to go ahead with his reforms.

Some cabinet members might even end up keeping their positions under newly appointed Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, a previously little-known tax official. A likely reason is to show that Putin still retains all the power.

 

The Russian-Mobish Presidency

The Moscow Kremlin
[Image via Michael Parulava-Unsplash]
Vladimir Putin also announced a strengthening of the judiciary and the Russian Constitution, which will have primacy over international treaties. This could be very bad news for Russia’s already questionable human rights situation.

The hierarchy of norms in any legal system depends on every state’s internal legislation. In the current system, Russian legislation places international law at the top of the pyramid. If Putin is able to push through his reforms, this will change. The nation’s compliance with international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, could be at risk.

It also means that Russia might not comply with the decisions of international courts. This would give Putin the freedom to act within the law even when committing questionable acts. Smaller countries like Ukraine, that have already found themselves in Putin’s chokehold, would be in an even weaker position.

European nations that depend on Russia’s oil and gas exports could have their position at the negotiating table threatened. Putin has previously made it clear he doesn’t shy away from strong measures, even cutting off energy supplies in the dead of winter.

Presidency Is Not For Foreigners Or Critics

Putin also plans on tightening the requirements placed on candidates running for public office. The new constitution would require officials to not have a double nationality or residence abroad. This applies not only to the president and ministers, but also judges and members of the Duma.

As for the president himself, he would have even stricter restrictions. Putin’s plan is to make it impossible for anyone who has resided outside of Russia in the past 25 years to run for the presidency. These reforms are likely aimed at some of Putin’s opposition, especially Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and other wealthy critics living in exile.

Reforms To Buy Time And Favors

Putin did direct some of his reforms to buying himself the support of the public and the local officials.

He proposed guaranteeing the minimum wage as a constitutional right. The move is more likely to be originated in his dropping poll numbers than a desire to improve living conditions, but it might do the trick. Putin has, after all, enjoyed very high approval ratings in the past.

In his address, Putin also announced delegating more power to the State Council. He would be giving the entity that represents the 85 federal subjects of the Russian Federation a more official role in the decision-making process. This way, Putin can extend his influence over the local officials.

 

Russia–Not So Much A Democracy

Nesting dolls with Putin and Trump
[Image via Jørgen Håland-Unsplash]
Russia’s political system is very different from established Western democracies. Economic crises and Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms buried the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago, but Russia has not exactly become a strong, institutional democracy since then.

The nation has a long-standing authoritarian tradition, coming from the czars all the way through to Stalin, Kruschev and other Soviet leaders.

Russians learned democratization was not as easy as it might have looked, especially for an impoverished nation with a wealthy, corrupt bureaucracy. So far, Russian presidents have not been able to build a functioning republic from the Soviet Union’s ashes.

After the formation of the Russian Federation in 1991, Boris Yeltsin became its first president. To keep himself in power, he ended up creating the famous Russian oligarchs. They were a small group of men who, in exchange for funding Yeltsin’s campaign in 1996, gained unlimited access to power and the country’s booming energy sector.

Former KGB agent Vladimir Putin became prime minister in Yeltsin’s government in 1999 and took his place after the president’s resignation.

 

What About The Opposition?

 

Putin has made it clear to his opponents that he doesn’t take being challenged lightly.

In 2019, the Russian government orchestrated crackdowns and mass raids on several opposition leaders, including Alexei Navalny. Navalny was also poisoned last year, and fingers point at the Kremlin. Suspicious deaths of Putin’s critics have accumulated in recent years. They are likely to continue if his opposition becomes more outspoken,

Even if some of Putin’s announcements could seem directed at a more balanced, republican system, Russia experts coincide that the intention is likely the opposite.

In the wake of a tough 2019 for Vladimir Putin, with protests in Moscow and his approval ratings falling, it looks like Putin is determined to show his critics in Russia and the world that he isn’t going anywhere.

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