Putin’s constitutional reforms could lead to his political demise

Putin has decided to stay forever in power. But as a result he may have to leave earlier than he hopes for.

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on January 15, 2020 [Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/via Reuters]

On January 15, during his state of the nation annual speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced major constitutional changes. As a result, the government of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who reportedly did not know this was in the making, resigned.

The amendments the Russian president put forward include term limits for the president, more authority for the parliament, which will be able to choose the prime minister, and wider powers for the State Council.

These reforms outline Putin’s plan for preserving power after the end of his term in 2024. This time, he will not go for a rochade with the prime minister, as he did after the end of his second term in 2008, but a “Kazakh move”, in which the outgoing president will be given a special state organ to lead (the State Council), which will relieve him of day-to-day duties but allow him to retain power. Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev pulled such a feat last year and it seems Putin is walking in his footsteps.

The Russian president will seek to retain control at the federal level through his ruling party, United Russia and at the regional level through the State Council.

These reforms are not necessarily that surprising. Such an option was apparently on the table in 2007, when Putin was mulling ways to retain power after leaving the presidency. What is surprising, however, is that the president launched the implementation of his plan so early.

It is possible that he was worried about Russian society and its elites growing anxious about the lack of vision for a post-Putin Russia early on, which could threaten the political stability of the country. He may have hastened to pass the reforms now, while he is still in full control.

Although his proposal is meant to ensure he retains power even after 2024, it may cost him dearly.

He has now showed his cards, declaring that, just like the party secretaries in Soviet times, he will stay on until death.

The problem is, Russia in 2020 is not the Soviet Union and as president you do not automatically get the right to stay in power forever. Putin’s main challenge will be getting Russian society and its elites to buy into his proposed changes and the idea of him retaining power. In the process, he may actually meet his political demise.

The Russian president has already indicated that while the people should approve these major constitutional changes, he will not call for a referendum. It is likely he is afraid of an opposition boycott and of not being able to get the voter turnout of 50 percent needed for referendum results to be valid.

Whatever form this vote will take (other than a referendum), it is likely that it will lead to political unrest. A quick look at the history of revolutions against authoritarian regimes shows that during national elections – even if they are completely unfree – political sentiments often flare up and trigger political mobilisation.

In other words, national polls can become focal points for public anger in unfree societies. The more repressed civil society is and the narrower the spaces for expressing dissent are, the more important these points become. They turn into opportunities for spontaneous political protest in the absence of strong opposition parties through which to channel political demands.

And there is plenty of public anger simmering under the surface in Russia. The economy, albeit out of recession, remains sluggish as oil prices – a major factor that determines economic growth in Russia – remain low. Over the past few years, this has necessitated a number of painful social changes, including a pension reform that brought down Putin’s approval rating to 60 percent. Today public trust in the president is at 39 percent, and just 38 percent of Russians would vote for Putin if elections were to be held immediately.

Over the summer, the elections for Moscow’s local parliament showed the potential for popular mobilisation around electoral events. The decision of the electoral commission to disqualify opposition politicians from running caused major street protests and unrest.

It is quite likely that the voting on the proposed constitutional changes will trigger another wave of unrest around the country. Already the proposal has caused much dissatisfaction across the country. Whether such upheaval can lead to a revolution in the country remains to be seen, but even if Putin manages to put it down, he will still not be completely “safe”.

For 20 years now, he has presided over a complex power vertical of formal and informal institutions and interests. Although it is quite different from the Soviet system, it similarly involves a delicate balance. In the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to introduce reform, he upset the balance and the system collapsed like a house of cards.

Similarly, the changes that Putin proposes – although aimed at securing his power in the long term – are threatening the stability of the system. For example, as a consequence of the changes the president envisions, he will lose direct control over Russia’s various security agencies after 2024.

That already happened once before – in 2008 – but then thanks to the high oil prices and robust economic growth, his position was strong enough to pull the strings of the security sector behind Medvedev’s back.

Today, it is not just the general population who are tired of political and economic stagnation, but also the elites, who apart from those in Putin’s immediate circle are also not too happy with his presidency.

This means that by stepping down in 2024, Putin will be in a much weaker position, even if all the changes he has proposed are implemented; he will also not be able to rely on the security agencies. He would be much more susceptible to internal conspiracies.

In other words, his “Kazakh move” might end up in a “Kyrgyz disaster”. In 2017, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, who as per the constitution could not run for a second term, passed the presidency to his political ally Sooronbay Jeenbekov after changing the constitution and enhancing the powers of the prime minister.

Many believed that he would seek the premiership in order to retain power. But soon after he stepped down, he fell out with Jeenbekov, who had the parliament strip him of his political immunity and send him to jail.

Russian history also has many examples of conspiracies against political leaders by purportedly loyal supporters – whether it is the palace coup against Emperor Paul I in the 18th century or the plot to oust Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s.

Friends and cohorts can easily shift loyalty if presented with the right opportunity and reason.

There are already reasons for some within the circles of power to desire Putin’s ouster and soon they may have a convenient opportunity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.