In 2008, at the end of his second term, Putin easily got around Article 81 of the Russian constitution, which limits the president to two consecutive terms, by installing Dmitry Medvedev as puppet president — while continuing to wield power from the position of prime minister.
In 2024, when Putin turns 72, such an arrangement will no longer be an option. And so this week, in his annual address to parliament, the Kremlin strongman announced the most sweeping constitutional overhaul in a quarter of a century. “Constitutional coup d’état” would be a more appropriate description, since the proposed changes are aimed at codifying Putin’s lifetime rule.
The planned “reform” will significantly weaken the presidency, shifting the power to nominate the prime minister and the cabinet to the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament. At the same time, a hitherto toothless advisory body known as the State Council will get an upgrade to constitutional status, with its powers as yet unspecified. “It’s almost certain that Putin will become its chairman,” Alexander Solovyev, an opposition politician, told Echo of Moscow radio this week. “So he is setting himself up to be sort of a father of the nation, an ayatollah, a demigod.”
For some time now, the Kremlin has been floating ideas about how best to overcome the “2024 problem.” One scenario involved creating a new state by incorporating Belarus. In the end, though, Putin decided to simply follow the example of Kazakhstan, where longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev recently vacated the presidency, only to retain control as chairman of the Security Council and leader of the ruling party. In his quest to maintain his personal power, Putin is attempting to transplant the Central Asian model to European soil.
“In the 21st century, Russia is ruled by a backward and ineffective authoritarian system, a system that has no respect for people, no vision for the future, and no moral compass,” wrote Grigory Yavlinsky, the founder of Yabloko, Russia’s last remaining major liberal party. “Putin is proposing to not only maintain this system but to make it even more authoritarian and even more closed.”
Along with redistributing executive power, Putin also proposed to abolish the primacy of international law now enshrined in the constitution. As a member of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia is bound by international standards on human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law — including democratic elections, protections from arbitrary imprisonment, and freedoms of the media, assembly, and association.
In practice, the Putin regime has long ignored these commitments — even though it is periodically reminded of them by rulings from the European Court of Human Rights. The latest came just a day before Putin’s constitutional announcement, when the court found violations of three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the formerly imprisoned and now exiled Putin opponent. By establishing the primacy of domestic statutes, the Kremlin intends to free itself from its remaining formal commitments under international law, signaling yet another milestone in its growing isolation.
The changes are being ushered at a breathtaking pace: Constitutional amendments are due to take effect by May, and there is growing talk of an early parliamentary election this year. The Kremlin is reported to be in the process of creating several fake political parties that would dilute the protest vote, ensuring the continued dominance of the ruling United Russia party despite its falling support.
Real opponents, meanwhile, will likely be kept away from the ballot altogether. This week, Russia’s Supreme Court suspended the license of a party led by former opposition lawmaker Dmitri Gudkov, while a new draft law flagged in the Duma would allow the government to ban any political party for “undermining the credibility of the state in the international arena.” The document specifically mentions Yabloko and its leaders’ supposed “regular contacts” with foreigners, including former U.S. ambassador John Tefft, who is described as a “mastermind of color revolutions.”
There is nothing surprising about the news from Moscow. Putin’s intentions have long been apparent; what we learned this week was merely the details. Many young people on social media, appalled by the notion of another generation growing up under one-man rule, responded to the news with gloom.
Yet it is important to remember that the best-laid plans of strongmen do not always translate into reality. The fates of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, or Serzh Sargsyan in Armenia testify to that.
In recent years, young, urban, educated Russians have been increasingly asserting their opposition to Putin’s authoritarian consolidation. The 2011-2012 winter protests, the nationwide anti-corruption rallies in 2017, or last summer’s demonstrations against the removal of opposition candidates from local elections all offer cases in point. The only force that can hinder Putin’s plans for lifetime rule is organized public resistance from Russian citizens. How strong it will be is now the only real question.