State of the Transition Address: Constitutional Reform Will Result in Controlled Political Destabilization
By Ivan Rodin. Nezavisimaya gazeta, Jan. 16, 2020, p. 1. Complete text:
[Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s 16th Message to the Federal Assembly had two parts. The first part, as advertised, dealt with social issues. The president showed the people how he is personally looking out for them.
The second part was addressed to the ruling class. Putin explained how he wants to overhaul the current structure of government through a number of constitutional amendments. He started with an initiative that the Kremlin expects all the parliamentary parties to support – and they probably will. “International laws and treaties, as well as rulings by international organizations, can only be applied in Russia so long as they do not limit human rights and freedoms or contradict our Constitution,” the president said, unveiling his first amendment. He prefaced it by saying that the foundations of the constitutional system should remain unaltered, meaning there is no need to adopt a new Constitution.
The second amendment can be described as the “nationalization of the elite.” Top government officials will be banned from holding dual citizenship or having any close ties with other countries. In addition, presidential candidates will now be required to have maintained continuous residency in Russia for 25 years. The third amendment came as no surprise: As expected, Putin proposed dropping the adverb “consecutively” from the provision limiting a president to two terms. Once again, Putin said that this amendment was not too important, which made his critics even more confident that, on the contrary, it is very important.
The president’s fourth constitutional initiative was not that much of a surprise, either. “I think the Constitution should set forth the principles defining the entire system of governance, with different government and municipal bodies working effectively together,” Putin said. He also said that local self-government bodies should be given more authority and real power. However, the president did not go into any details.
Halfway through the list of proposed amendments, the president mentioned an initiative ostensibly for the people. The Constitution will now clearly state that the minimum wage cannot be lower than the living wage. In fact, Russian law already has this norm, so the amendment will change nothing, except the Constitution will now appear more socially oriented. In addition, it will now guarantee “decent pensions” for retirees. The president added that this should include regular adjustments for inflation. What he failed to explain is how those adjustments can make the current pensions decent.
The rest of the amendments were intended for the political class and were the most obscure. When you change the balance of power among the various branches of government, it is always important to clearly understand each branch’s scope of authority, and most importantly, to understand the procedural nuances of the new mechanisms of interaction among the various branches and government agencies. For example, to boost the role of governors, the Constitution will now include a section on the State Council, which Putin said will have an appropriate status and role. But that status and role are as yet unclear. On the other hand, that is not the key question here. The thing is, with few exceptions, governors are no longer some local up-and-comers; most of them are caretakers sent by Moscow. In other words, the president is creating an entity that will be made up almost entirely of his own people. And if the State Council gets a lot of power, its chairman will wield a lot of influence, too.
In other words, Jan. 15 was the beginning of a process called a transition – or transfer – of power. Most pundits believe that as a result of this process, Putin will leave his current post while retaining control of the country. The reasons behind all the other amendments that Putin proposed in his speech become more apparent if considered from that angle. For example, instead of giving the nod to the president’s nominees [as it currently does – Trans.], the State Duma will have the right to independently appoint the prime minister and all cabinet members. The president will be obliged to confirm them, Putin noted, but then he spoke about the next amendment: the unconditional right of the head of state to dismiss both the head of government and any ministers. But not a single word was said about who would nominate prime ministerial candidates for the State Duma.
At the same time, the heads of the military, security and law-enforcement agencies will still be appointed by the president, but in consultation with the Federation Council. The same procedure can be used to appoint regional prosecutors, Putin said, because prosecutorial oversight should remain firmly in the hands of the federal government. Incidentally, senators will now have the power to dismiss Supreme and Constitutional Court justices – again, only at the president’s request. On the other hand, the Constitutional Court will now have the power to block any bill from taking effect – again, at the president’s request.
At the end of his speech, Putin mentioned the people once again and announced that all his proposed amendments, as well as any others that may appear later, must first be approved by the people – and that the proposed amendments may change significantly during that process. Immediately after the speech, government officials and politicians started debating whether public approval meant calling a referendum. For example, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin initially claimed that Putin did propose holding a referendum, while Central Electoral Commission chairwoman Ella Pamfilova insisted that the president had something else in mind. The nonestablishment opposition immediately started complaining that if the vote takes place online, the Kremlin would definitely rig the results. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the possibility of calling a referendum but did not explain what will happen instead. Rumors circulating in the Duma have it that all the amendments will be adopted this summer.
This means, first, that gubernatorial elections will be extremely fierce, and second, that the 2021 Duma campaign will be a real battle. In other words, Putin’s initiatives have quickly resulted in political destabilization. But the abrupt resignation [on Jan. 15] of Dmitry Medvedev’s government demonstrated that the Kremlin hopes to keep this unfolding crisis under control.