Vladimir Putin’s new orchestra

Author : Ivan Krastev

Source : The New York Times

The players are being rearranged, but the conductor remains the same
23:31, 28 January 2020

On Jan. 15, it became clear to the people of Russia that they would never again have the opportunity to vote for Vladimir Putin. It also became clear that they would live with him for the foreseeable future.

In his annual State of the Nation address, Mr. Putin promised that he would step aside in 2024 when his current term expires. At the same time he outlined a series of sweeping constitutional reforms that would likely go into force this year: Russia will remain a presidential republic but future presidents will be limited to two terms in office. Parliament will have the right to appoint government ministers, including the prime minister. (Currently, they are selected by the president and approved by Parliament.) The changes will also confer additional powers to the State Council, which is now a fairly low-profile advisory body, leading many to believe that Mr. Putin imagines himself as the council’s chairman after 2024. The result is that in four years Mr. Putin can step aside and focus on running the world while his aides focus on running Russia.

Why has Russia’s powerful president chosen this route? In 2018, President Xi Jinping of China changed his country’s Constitution to allow himself to be president for life. Mr. Putin could easily have done the same, but decided against it. But Mr. Putin’s timing raises questions: Why did he present his constitutional initiative now, four years before the end of his term, in a manner that resembles a palace coup more than a political reform?

The timing and the nature of the constitutional amendments make it clear that Mr. Putin perceives his regime as in crisis and is doubtful about the continued viability of a system of personal rule when he is no longer around. He knows perfectly well that what his apologists trumpet as political stability is in reality political stagnation, and that popular support for the regime is in decay. It is quite possible that last summer’s protests in Moscow and the growing apathy of his supporters impelled the president to offer reform proposals and ask that any changes be legitimized by popular vote. It won’t come as a shock if the referendum coincides with early parliamentary elections this autumn, thus starting the power transition this year.

Unpacking Mr. Putin’s decisions, one cannot escape the sense that he is haunted by memories of the sclerotic and impotent leadership of the Soviet Union in its waning years. That period led to crime, economic decline and chaos. Russians remain scarred by it — and so Mr. Putin cannot allow his people to see themselves returning to life under a stagnating and aging elite.

Mr. Putin was right to believe that any talk about his possible successor would be an existential threat to his power. Contrary to Boris Yeltsin’s plan for power transition — widely known as “Operation Successor” — Mr. Putin’s own gambit might be best described as “Operation No Successor.” The next Russian president will not be Russia’s next leader, so society should stop being interested in who he will be.

His choice of Mikhail Mishutin as prime minister is indicative of how Mr. Putin will rearrange the new orchestra: Mr. Mishutin, who took office when Mr. Putin announced the changes, is said to be an effective manager and a capable bureaucrat, but his major quality is that nobody could imagine him as the next Putin. It is also clear that what the Kremlin aims for is modernizing governance and making it more efficient. But modernization doesn’t mean Westernization. A more digitized bureaucracy will not lead to more political competition, or even stronger rule of law. The Kremlin wants to preserve its near total control while at the same time it hopes to inject some dynamism into the economy.

Most commentators have strenuously highlighted that Mr. Putin will still remain in power after leaving the Kremlin, and are dismissive of any possible liberalizing effects of the suggested amendments. They may be right. In foreign policy, it’s unlikely that Russia will change course. Resisting the West is Mr. Putin’s definition of Russian sovereignty. But on domestic matters, the long-term consequences of the proposed changes are harder to predict. Surprising changes often have surprising consequences.

By constraining the powers of the president, empowering the Parliament, and making himself the ultimate power center beyond the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin has injected institutional competition that was not present. In doing so, he may have triggered the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle. As the esteemed Russian writer counseled young dramatists, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, in the following one it should be fired.” When rulers start cosmetic changes to prevent real change, they should be aware that there are no guarantees things will not actually change.

Read the original text at The New York Times.

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