Editor’s Note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the editor of The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Vladimir Putin has done it again. Facing a hard term limit in 2024 and falling approval ratings as the economy stagnates, Russia’s president has taken an unexpected gamble to increase his options by reshaping the political system.
Astonishing observers, Putin proposed on Wednesday the most dramatic changes to Russia’s constitution since 1993.
Under his plan – which he promised to submit to a nationwide vote – the right to choose the prime minister and his government would pass from the president to the parliament. At present, the president nominates the prime minister. The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, must approve the candidate by a majority vote, but if it rejects the president’s nominees three times in a row, he can dissolve parliament and call new elections.
Under the new proposal, the president would have no role in appointing ministers, rendering the government dependent primarily on the parliament. The State Council, previously a largely ceremonial, consultative body containing regional governors and a few federal officials, would get new undisclosed powers. Regional and local governments would also be strengthened.
The president would remain a major player, retaining the power to appoint leaders of the armed forces and law enforcement, after consulting the parliament’s upper house. But the current system dominated by an overwhelmingly powerful presidency would be replaced by one with more checks and balances, division of powers, and decentralization. These radical changes appear to signal that Putin is serious about stepping down from the presidency.
That does not mean he plans to retire from politics: most observers assume Putin hopes to dominate from some other position. But the option of eliminating presidential term limits –as chosen by Xi Jinping in China – is probably off the table. Another possibility – becoming president of a union of Russia and Belarus – also seems unlikely after recent negotiations with that country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, stalled.
After Putin’s announcement, the entire government resigned, allowing Putin to replace the current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, with a little-known technocrat, Mikhail Mishustin.
Putin loves to shock – and in this case he succeeded. In the past, he has hesitated to amend the constitution, not doing so once between 2000 and 2009. As long as he was president and extremely popular, the institutional details did not matter that much.
But that’s now the point. His approval ratings have been falling lately, and with no rapprochement with the West in sight, Russia’s economy is unlikely to improve much in the next few years. With Duma elections due in September 2021 and Putin’s term set to expire in 2024, the Kremlin was clearly getting anxious.
Having created a hyper-centralized system with power concentrated in his own hands, Putin now seems to want to blow this system up for fear it will be used against him. A new president as unconstrained as he was could pose a threat to Putin and his allies.
Putin, who in office has been no friend of democracy, now seems intent on leaving a more democratic order to his successor. The paradox is that accountable governments defend the powerful more reliably than authoritarian ones. In a dictatorship, all but the dictator – and even the dictator, at times – are vulnerable. By contrast, checks and balances leave most powerful groups with some points of leverage.
Other proposed changes also seem aimed at protecting Putin and his circle after he steps down. One asserts the priority of the Russian constitution over international law and treaties – which could come in handy in the event of international prosecutions.
Another bans those with dual citizenship or residence permits abroad from serving as ministers, judges, governors, or members of parliament. Future presidents will have to have lived in Russia for the previous 25 years. This proposal hints at the Kremlin’s nervousness about Western influence. It also closes the road to politics for those liberals Putin’s regime has driven out of the country.
Putin could still change his mind. The initiative could be a tactical gambit, aimed at opening up space for future moves. Some speculate he might plan to serve as chairman of the empowered State Council or even run for parliament to serve as prime minister – a role he already took in 2008-12 after his first two presidential terms.
Get our free weekly newsletter
That would be risky though, since the government tends to get blamed for poor public services and economic disappointments. It would also require Putin to run for election to the Duma. The pro-Putin United Russia party looks increasingly vulnerable, viewed by many as corrupt and out of touch. Creating another new party after 20 years in power would look a little desperate.
Regardless, the great champion of “stability” has now punctured Russia’s domestic stasis as dramatically as his Crimean intervention destabilized Russia’s neighborhood a few years ago. In a remarkable reversal, the architect of an imperial presidency has called for the position to be cut down to size. There’s a major irony here. If all comes to pass, the new amended constitution threatens to return Russia to the kind of deadlocked and conflictual system that it had in the 1990s – the very system that Putin rose to prominence vowing to replace.