Not so fast. Putin’s plans — which apparently include major changes to the constitution — are no triumph for democracy. They won’t dilute his personal power. They won’t invigorate the institutions of state or advance the cause of decentralization. And they certainly won’t solve Russia’s economic problems or address the festering problem of corruption.
So why go to the trouble?
When Putin first rose to the presidency on New Year’s Day 20 years ago, he did so as the chosen heir of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president. It didn’t take long for observers to figure out that Putin’s ideas about governance differed strongly from those of his predecessor. The Yeltsin era had brought freedom but also chaos, and Putin didn’t care for either.
Yet Putin couldn’t reject all the institutions his country had inherited from the 1990s. Doing so would have undermined his own legitimacy. And he was still claiming to be a democrat, despite growing evidence to the contrary.
So he made a point of hanging on to the Yeltsin-era constitution, an admirable document that enshrines parliamentary democracy, independence of the judiciary and freedom of speech (aside from a bit of tinkering in 2008 that increased presidential term limits from four to six years). Putin couldn’t just junk it — that would have been a terrible look for a leader who promised to replace Yeltsin-era anarchy with what Putin called “dictatorship of law.” Stability, predictability, sticking to the rules — Putin made it all a crucial part of his brand, even if the reality was always far messier.
Now, however, the constitution seems to have gone from being a useful prop to an obstacle. The document prohibits a president from serving more than two consecutive terms, meaning that Putin will have to step down from his current office in 2024.
He’s already done that once. In 2008, he swapped jobs with then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev; four years later, he sent Medvedev back to the prime minister’s office and moved back into the Kremlin, where he’s been ever since. (Russians still refer to the move as “the castling,” like the chess move.) Though Medvedev enjoyed a bit of room to maneuver during his single term as president, there was never any doubt that Putin was still pulling the strings.
He’s not going to do it again. In 2020, both Medvedev and the constitution have turned out to be expendable. Medvedev (along with the rest of the cabinet) has announced his resignation; Putin is replacing him with the top tax official. It sounds as though Medvedev wasn’t happy about Putin’s plans to downgrade his role by giving parliament the power to appoint prime ministers.
And the constitution itself? Well, Putin’s precise plans remain unclear — but aside from shifting some of the powers of the president to the legislature, he’s also said that he wants to give new authority to the state council, an institution that has never played a particularly important role before. That would amount to a major revision of the current constitutional order.
But Putin no longer cares. What he’s up to remains vague (probably by design), yet it’s hard to escape the sense that we’re entering a new phase of his story, one in which the autocratic exercise of authority becomes increasingly unmoored from the formal rules of the game. Other dictators before him have pulled this off before. Deng Xiaoping left top office in China in 1989 — but he continued to act as his country’s “paramount leader” even when his highest title was President of the Chinese Bridge Association. (He was a passionate card player.) Last spring, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader of Kazakhstan, stepped down as president — yet he’s clearly still running things.
Putin is giving us a useful lesson in the realities of dictatorship. In autocracies, constitutions or written laws don’t matter. What matters is who wields power. Who appoints government bureaucrats to their jobs? Who gives orders to judges or tax inspectors? Who has ultimate purview over the media? And, most crucial, who controls the guns — the military, the secret police, the security services?
We will see if Putin can figure out a way to hold onto his power once he leaves the office of president (assuming he ever actually does). But he has just served notice that, whatever else happens, he isn’t going to let a fancy piece of paper stand in his way.