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Putin’s Constitutional Reform Challenged by the Coronavirus Pandemic

Putin’s Constitutional Reform Challenged by the Coronavirus Pandemic
 Quentin Peel
Associate Fellow with the Europe Programme at Chatham House

In Russia, the coronavirus outbreak is occurring during a constitutional reform that is particularly important for the ruling president. This reform, announced by President Vladimir Putin in a speech on January 15, is being hampered by the growing extent of the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences. The reform contains, in particular, an amendment that could allow Putin to remain in power until 2036. In this context, What is the meaning of President Putin's constitutional amendment allowing him to remain in power beyond 2024? What are the likely consequences of the current Covid-19 crisis for President Putin’s authority (including his ability to stay in power beyond 2024)? What are the implications for the rest of Europe of a Russia ruled by Vladimir Putin until 2036? Quentin Peel, associate fellow of Chatham House, who wrote in our blog a portrait of Putin published in octobre 2018, answers our questions.

What is the meaning of President Putin's constitutional amendment allowing him to remain in power beyond 2024? What is his end goal?

While the entire world has been obsessed with the battle to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s President appears to have had a higher priority. His constitutional reform package rushed through the State Duma in the past two months amounts to an effective coup d’état to extend his personal rule in the Kremlin.

Yet even as Putin was presumably celebrating the success of his domestic coup, he was overtaken by the twin crises of the pandemic and the associated global economic crisis, over which he has much less control. Indeed, he appears to have made major strategic blunders on both fronts, by downplaying the danger of Covid-19, and picking a fight with Saudi Arabia in the oil market, from which he has been forced to retreat in some confusion.

But first things first.

The constitutional amendment that he endorsed on March 10 enables him – if he so chooses – to become the longest-serving ruler of Russia since Ivan the Terrible. Instead of being forced to retire in 2024, having been president for four terms already, he would be allowed to serve another 12 years in office. That means staying until the ripe old age of 83.

Yet when Putin first suggested the idea of a package of constitutional reforms, back in January, he gave the clear impression – including to many of his close supporters – that he would step back from the presidency in 2024, even if he continued to pull the strings.

It looked as if it had been cobbled together in haste. He proposed a mixed bag of constitutional changes which would give some new powers to the Federation Council and the Russian regions, some to the State Duma, and some to the president himself. Commitments to guarantee social welfare spending were part of the package. It all seemed a bit of a muddle, and public reaction was lukewarm. On closer inspection, it looked like window-dressing for him to remain the power behind the throne, as chairman of a newly-constituted "supreme state council".

Two months later, on March 2, the President suggested fleshing out the package with further amendments to reinforce "traditional values", such as putting God, and the Russian language, in the constitution, banning gay marriages, and enforcing the power of Russian courts to ignore the decisions of international courts. All of this would then be put to a "national vote". Putin was appealing to conservative, nationalist values to ensure support for the whole package. But it was still not enough.

Just one week later it was left to 83-year-old Valentina Tereshkova, the first Soviet woman cosmonaut and a prominent personality, to propose in the Duma what was most probably the Putin plan all along: another amendment that would put the clock back to zero in terms of the Russian constitution, allowing Putin to run again for another two terms in office. She begged the President to agree. To no one’s great surprise, he did so almost immediately.

The constitutional amendment that he endorsed on March 10 enables him – if he so chooses – to become the longest-serving ruler of Russia since Ivan the Terrible.

In a matter of days, the reform was rushed through the State Duma, signed off by the President, and rubber stamped by the Russian constitutional court. Only one thing remains to be done to complete the Putin plan – to put the changes to a "national vote". That was supposed to take place on April 22, the anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. But Mr. Putin was forced to call it off because of the coronavirus crisis. Does it matter? The referendum has no legal status: it is a fig-leaf to give the move more political legitimacy. But precisely for that reason, Putin has made it clear it is not cancelled, but merely postponed.

The whole exercise looks like a classic "special operation" that could have been designed by the KGB security service that trained Putin in the 1970s. So why the rush, and why the subterfuge? Why should a man who already enjoys sweeping authority act with such haste – four years before his term ends – and pretend to play by constitutional rules to subvert the constitution?

Sergei Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow and former chief of staff to the president, put his finger on it: "A president who cannot run for another term cannot be a strong figure by definition", he wrote on his website. "A ban on the incumbent being re-elected is a destabilising factor both in domestic and foreign policy".

Putin certainly does not want to be a lame duck president. It is not just a Russian issue. He can see that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, lost much of her authority at home and abroad by announcing her impending departure too soon. But Russia’s institutions are less stable than Germany’s. Putin is acutely aware of the danger of a prolonged period of in-fighting between his potential successors – whose names might very well include that of Sobyanin. It would undermine the power of the Russian state, central to his vision of Putinism. It would split Team Putin, and endanger his hopes of anything like a dignified handover and safe retirement. He may be an autocrat in the Kremlin pretending to be an elected president, but he also knows that the greatest weakness in the system of Putinism is the lack of any succession mechanism.

Popular trust in the Russian President has been slipping: according to the Levada polling agency, when asked an open question about "who you trust", those who name Putin are down from 60 to 35 per cent in the two years since he was re-elected in 2018.

He doesn’t really have to worry, because he knows he can still rig election results, or bar his most serious challengers. But Putin wants to be admired. He believes in his own image as the father of the nation. He wants to leave an enduring legacy. The trouble is that his autocratic rule and centralisation of power mean that the institutions of the Russian state lack legitimacy. He has ensured they remain that way by reinforcing the siloviki – the security establishment – at their expense.

He also wants to be directly associated with symbols of national pride. An extravagant celebration on May 9, the 75th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, was supposed to follow the national vote on the new constitution. But that all depends on the pandemic. It seems unlikely that any major foreign leader – such as President Emmanuel Macron – will attend if it does take place. By opening up the option of remaining in office, Putin has once again caught any potential rivals – in the elite and in the opposition – off balance. He does not have to decide whether he will run again until the last minute. But the chances are that he will, because he has no choice. And he cannot afford to lose.

When asked an open question about "who you trust", those who name Putin are down from 60 to 35 per cent in the two years since he was re-elected in 2018.

Putin’s popularity was already sliding before the pandemic and the crash in the global economy. He appears increasingly lonely and isolated in the Kremlin. He wants to have a "Putin constitution", just as there was a Lenin constitution and a Stalin constitution. That is what great leaders do in Russia. But his own version, hurriedly cobbled together in a matter of months, seems very unlikely to survive his departure. If he wants "Putinism" to survive, he has to remain in charge. He has become his own political prisoner, locked in the Kremlin with no exit in sight.

What are the likely consequences of the current Covid-19 crisis for President Putin’s authority (including his ability to stay in power beyond 2024)?

For two months, from January until the middle of March, President Putin insisted that the Covid-19 pandemic was "under control" in Russia. He was much more concerned about his plans for constitutional reform. Like Donald Trump, he seemed to think it would all blow over.

The Russian media did not seem to be too bothered, either, focussing instead on the problems Covid-19 was causing in other countries, first in China, and then in the rest of Europe and America. Russian infections and mortality appeared to be much lower than elsewhere. Russian trolls suggested the virus was manufactured in an American (or possibly Latvian) laboratory, while commentators rejoiced that the turmoil in Europe and the US might mean the demise of liberal democracy. Putin sought to maximise his propaganda advantage by sending planeloads of medical supplies, face-masks and even military doctors to help Italy and most recently to the US.

Since early March, however, it has become apparent that Russia will not escape the pandemic. And the clearest sign that Putin is suddenly worried about the backlash at home is that he left responsibility for the emergency to his subordinates: Mikhail Mishustin, his newly-installed Prime minister, Mayor Sobyanin in Moscow, and the regional governors across the country. They had to announce preventive measures and then enforce the rules of any lockdown. The President simply declared a month of "non-working" – on full pay. Putin wants to be popular, even if it means wrecking businesses that cannot afford to pay their workers.

Putin wants to be popular, even if it means wrecking businesses that cannot afford to pay their workers.

The absence of any involvement of the presidential administration and the security services in designing and enforcing emergency regulations, is extraordinary. But if things go badly wrong, Putin will presumably try to lay the blame on everyone else. No doubt that is why three regional governors promptly resigned.

Everything depends on just how badly Russia will be affected, and whether its health service can handle it. The official statistics are already in doubt: Sobyanin dared to question the figures, in a TV debate with the President. He revealed in public what doctors and dissidents had argued for weeks. That is because 70 per cent of all Russian infections and deaths from Covid-19 have so far been recorded in Moscow. But even those are likely to be an underestimate. Testing everywhere has been patchy, erratic and slow, with all swabs having to be sent to a single laboratory in Siberia for analysis.

On the downside, Russia’s medical services are under-funded and ill-equipped, especially in the provinces. There has been an angry backlash on social media – where the younger generation get all their information – against Putin’s decision to send supplies of face masks and ventilators to Italy and America when his own medical service is desperately short of the same things. An upsurge in infections would swiftly overwhelm the capacity of cash-strapped hospitals across the country. Although the true mortality rate may not become apparent immediately, official death statistics will be hard to suppress indefinitely.

On the upside, Russia’s economy has already been forced into semi-isolation by Western sanctions, imposed after the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014, and its support for the separatist insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. There is less reliance on imported food, which was a big drain on the balance of payments. The Russian government has also built up almost $570bn in gold and foreign exchange reserves while the oil price was high, which would normally be enough to tide the Russian economy over the current price crash for at least 18 months.

On the other hand, Russia’s extraordinary decision to pick a battle on oil output with Saudi Arabia – although ostensibly intended to undermine US shale oil production – rocked the stock market and caused a slump in the value of the rouble. That will certainly hit the emerging Russian urban middle classes, who have become increasingly reliant on imported goods and accustomed to foreign holidays.

Taken altogether, however, Putin is facing two huge challenges beyond his control – the pandemic and the global economic crash – just at the moment when he has launched a domestic debate on his own presidency.  His flat refusal to cut oil production at the request of Saudi Arabia and its OPEC allies has now been reversed, with the latest agreement on April 12 set to make far more drastic output cuts than first proposed by the oil cartel. That came after the direct intervention of Donald Trump – and no fewer than five direct phone calls from White House to Kremlin – making Putin look as if he had bowed to a higher authority. Even now, there is no guarantee that the cuts will stabilise the oil market, with a huge collapse in global demand. If the oil price does not recover, it means that he will no longer have the budget surplus needed to fund the welfare spending promised in his constitutional reform package. Putin’s pact with the Russian people is based on his capacity to deliver stability and prosperity. Both are now in doubt.

What are the implications for the rest of Europe of a Russia ruled by Vladimir Putin until 2036? What consequences can we draw from this for European policy towards Russia?

Alexander Baunov, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, sees Putin’s constitutional coup as confirmation that "as far as the men in the Kremlin are concerned, losing power means losing Russia. That is more important than any constitution." He sees the main losers from the operation as the "in-system liberals" who were still hoping for top-down incremental change in Russia, and the beginning of a more genuinely competitive system from 2024.

What about the rest of Europe? There can surely be no illusions now in Berlin, Brussels, London or Paris about Putin’s disdain for democracy and the rule of law. He has made a clear choice to reinforce his personal power, and stay in charge for the foreseeable future. He sees "liberal democracy" as a failed system, and the European Union in particular as the embodiment of that failure.

His reform package also makes clear that he will continue to beat the nationalist drum to regain respect abroad and revive his support at home. It will be written into the constitution, for example, that the integrity of Russia’s borders is sacrosanct, which implies a flat refusal to reconsider the status of Crimea, and that international law cannot take precedence over national law in Russian courts.

None of that is very new. It is how Putin has always behaved. He has a chip on his shoulder about the lack of respect for Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he is determined to get Russia’s seat back at the top table. Most urgently, he wants to get EU and US sanctions lifted, which have been in force since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Putin’s constitutional coup is far more a sign of weakness than a sign of strength.

The EU is divided. Emmanuel Macron wants to re-engage in a strategic dialogue with Moscow, arguing that it is a "major error to distance ourselves from a part of Europe that we don’t feel comfortable with". His initiative was launched last November, well before Putin unveiled his constitutional coup. Berlin has voiced dismay, although there is a significant constituency in Germany, with strong support from exporters and investors in Russia, who would like to see a new effort at engagement. EU front-line states with Russia, such as the Baltic republics, are strongly opposed.

The worst thing for the EU at this stage would be to split over sanctions. That would be seen as a reward for the Russian President in his campaign to stay in the Kremlin indefinitely. If sanctions are not renewed by the EU in June – and the vote must be unanimous – it would also signal acceptance of Russia’s continuing interference in Ukraine.

What the EU member states – and the UK – should be doing is opening the door to dialogue, but only under very strict conditions. If that is what Macron wants to do, he may just be able to forge a wider EU alliance including Germany, which holds the EU presidency in the second half of 2020.

That means sanctions must remain in force for the foreseeable future. EU members should drastically step up action against money-laundering and corruption emanating from Russia, whether that is in the City of London, Cyprus, Malta or Luxembourg, to name but a few. Failure to do so lends itself to justified Russian accusations of hypocrisy.

On the other hand, part of any closer engagement should be agreement on both sides to curb the plague of internet trolls and hackers, most of them based in Russia. That won’t happen unless the Kremlin is persuaded that spreading misinformation is counter-productive. The Europeans could and should impose much stricter requirements for accuracy and objectivity on Russian broadcasters such as RT and Sputnik if they wish to operate from EU or British bases.

Putin has clamped down on "foreign agents" in Russia, and effectively barred foreign money from supporting civil society and NGOs inside the country. The rest of Europe should respond by being more generous in providing subsidies and scholarships to young Russians seeking to pursue further education outside the country. It is a ridiculous situation where pro-Kremlin oligarchs and their families find it easier to get visas for European travel than ordinary citizens and students wanting to study.

The danger for Europeans is in seeing a Russia ruled by Putin as somehow stronger and more efficient than the slow-moving, consensual EU. That could not be further from the truth. Putin’s constitutional coup is far more a sign of weakness than a sign of strength. On both Covid-19 and the oil market, he has shown himself at the mercy of events beyond his control. He has failed for 20 years to create strong institutions, a fair and independent judiciary, and to reform the Russian economy to reduce its overwhelming reliance on oil and other natural resources. If he does try to stay in power for another 16 years, the country will be condemned to further stagnation. It is up to the rest of Europe to demonstrate that it has a more attractive model which is liberal, democratic and sustainable.


Copyright: Mikhail KLIMENTYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP

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