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Putin’s Future: Reading the Tea Leaves
Putin’s Future: Reading the Tea Leaves
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Putin’s Future: Reading the Tea Leaves

Originally published in Inkstick

As President Putin announces changes to Russia’s constitution, Crisis Group expert Olga Oliker explores his plans for the future. Putin’s government may have resigned and his future role may be unknown, she says, but one thing is certain: he is the one calling the shots.

The Russian president’s annual address to parliament came early this year, on January 15. Since then, Russia and its watchers have hardly stopped talking. Vladimir Putin, who began his presentation by acknowledging a public thirst for change and the need to better support Russian families, closed by proposing constitutional amendments that could alter how Russia is governed. Less than a week later, Russia’s parliament has received draft text for these amendments. After 20 years at Russia’s helm, is its president laying out a path to stay in power, define his succession, or both? And do the changes promised mean a different path for Russia, at home or abroad?

The short answer is that neither Putin’s speech nor the new amendment drafts answer these questions. Some new promises, like a living minimum wage and indexed pensions, are concrete. Others, including plans for government restructuring, remain frustratingly vague, letting everyone read what they want into them until texts are finalized and, per Putin’s recommendation, put to a public vote. Even then, some may retain remarkable, and perhaps worrying, flexibility. The Russian president is not so much offering a blueprint for a new system as he is promising one — just as soon as he decides what it should be.

Here’s what we know. According to the current draft text, going forward, Russia’s presidents will be limited to two terms. This means Putin plans to move on when his term ends in 2024. Up to now, the constitutional limit has been two “consecutive” terms. This served Putin well when his first two terms ended back in 2008. For the four years that followed, Dmitry Medvedev was president, and Putin prime minister. The two men then traded jobs in 2012 (Medvedev having helpfully amended the Constitution to extend each term by two years), and Putin was re-elected to the presidency for a fourth time in 2018. But having taken advantage of this particular loophole once, Putin is now suggesting it be closed.

Is Putin then looking to weaken the presidency, so that he can control his successor from some other position? Aside from the term limits, the proposed constitutional changes would curb some presidential powers, strengthening the parliament when it comes to ministerial appointments and the Constitutional Court when it comes to oversight of laws and regulations. But the president would retain control over appointing the heads of the security services, foreign ministry, and judiciary, among others, and be able to fire ministers and judges. Unless future revisions go substantially further, this plan is well short of real redistribution of power.

Putin also suggested a policymaking role for the State Council, now an advisory body chaired by the president and comprising Russia’s governors, senior officials, and heads of legislative bodies and parties. It is possible that Putin envisions himself permanently at its helm, and the Council as the final arbiter of key government decisions. It’s possible, but this is purely speculative. Not only were Putin’s comments vague, but the draft law also says little about just how the new Council would carry out its duties of, to paraphrase the text, guiding and helping to coordinate Russian policy. The draft says nothing about the Council’s membership or leadership.

[Putin] alone decides what changes and what stays the same.

There will, it seems, be new limits on who can be president. Today, a candidate must have lived in Russia for 10 years. The new constitution would make it 25, coupled with a prohibition on having ever held foreign citizenship or right to continuous residency (which would presumably render the 25-year question moot in most imaginable cases). Depending on how the right to continuous residency is defined, this could be very restrictive. For example, opposition activist and politician Alexei Navalny, who spent several months at Yale University on a fellowship, could be prohibited from running, as would any Russian who has studied abroad. The draft law does not clarify this.

Putin spoke of a need to streamline and standardize local governance. If this means stricter centralization, it bodes ill for Russia’s more autonomous regions. The draft text simply affirms that all of Russia is under a single system of governance. Putin’s proposed amendment to ensure international laws and agreements become part of Russian law if and only if they don’t contradict Russia’s constitution (or violate human rights) may be an effort to defend against future international court judgements, among other inconveniences. International agreements may therefore linger in Russian courts before, or instead of, entering into law.

For all its uncertainty, Putin’s speech had near-immediate results. Within hours, Prime Minister Medvedev had resigned, stating that he and his government should be replaced by those who can implement Putin’s vision. Medvedev is now slated to be the new vice chair of Russia’s Security Council. This role that could be quite powerful, or not, depending on how the president chooses to use it.

Medvedev was replaced as prime minister the very next day. Even if most of Russia’s parliamentarians and public were surprised by Putin’s call for change, the Kremlin evidently had a plan. The new incumbent, Mikhail Mishustin, had been quietly and competently serving as Russia’s tax chief since 2010. Mishustin has promised a business-friendly approach, focused on growing Russia’s economy.

And now, just days later, a draft law sits with parliament. All of this underlines just how powerful Putin is today. He alone decides what changes and what stays the same. Everyone else responds. But if Putin is calling the shots and his plans remain open to interpretation, what should we expect going forward?

To my mind, Putin’s opening comments, with their emphasis on the dissatisfaction of ordinary Russians, offer a clue. Putin understands that widespread frustration with economic stagnation and growing inequality means that any future government, whether helmed by him or someone else, will have to temper public discontent. The majority of Putin’s speech focused not on government restructuring, but on children and families, health care, and economic development (and mentioned shrinking emissions by polluting firms). This was where Putin’s proposals and the constitutional changes proposed are most concrete. The appointment of Mishustin, the talk of wage and pension growth, and the promises of hot school lunches (a high point of his speech before promises of power shifts distracted observers) are surely meant to reassure and offer hope. But past pledges along these lines have led to disappointment. On the domestic front, then, it will be important to watch how much of Putin’s social agenda gets implemented, and what impact it has.

Expect more senior personnel changes like the January 20 replacement of Russia’s general prosecutor. Yuri Chaika, long accused of corruption, is out. Former senior federal investigator Igor Krasnov, is in. These, too, are intended to demonstrate a commitment to change. Patterns among the appointments (do we see a lot of technocrats? People representing the security services?) will be worth tracking.

Meanwhile the Kremlin will stay the course where the course is working for it. I would not, for example, predict substantial shifts on the foreign policy front. Even if Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were to retire or take on some new role, Putin’s comments about Russia’s foreign policy direction suggest that it will remain its increasingly active, neuralgic, and opportunistic self abroad. Moscow has enjoyed a series of foreign policy successes recently, increasing its involvement, influence and stature throughout the world. Putin’s vision of a leadership role for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which he notably described as the “five nuclear weapon states,” his celebration of the advanced state of Russian weaponry, and his talk of increasing global partnerships reflect his desire to establish Russia as one of a small handful of countries that matter.

As to changes in how Russia is governed, and who governs it, we will have to wait and see. Putin’s goal may well be a more balanced system, which improves (by his metrics) governance and precludes his successor from taking on too much power. It’s also plausible that Putin wants to ensure that if he doesn’t find anyone he trusts fully (and if he hasn’t in 20 years, what are the odds that he will in four?), he can maintain a hand on the reins of power. But for all the excitement this past week, nothing that happens clarifies Putin’s vision, if, indeed, he has one. If he plans to stay on, Russian governance institutions will, indeed, change drastically, whether or not Russian policies do so. If he steps aside, we can be confident that he will seek a way to do so that ensures both his legacy as Russia’s leader and his personal safety and security for a long time to come.