Here’s the backstory
In mid-January, Putin submitted proposals for amendments to the constitution and formed a working group to refine the legislation. On March 10, a Russian Duma deputy proposed an amendment that would reset Putin’s presidential term limit clock to zero — a move that would allow him to run for office in 2024 and 2030, and potentially remain in office through 2036. Within a week, Russia’s parliament and regional governments ratified the amendments and the Constitutional Court approved the changes. The popular referendum was the next step.
A shaky Kremlin takes no chances
With a stagnant economy, a dysfunctional bureaucracy, a haphazard coronavirus response and declining trust in the president, the Kremlin took no chances on the vote. The Kremlin tacked on a number of popular initiatives, such as raising the minimum wage, indexing pensions and defining marriage as a union only between a man and woman — hardly a sign of confidence in the popularity of the constitutional reform.
Bundling the amendments as a single package rather than having Russians vote on separate issues suggests concern that Russians might not have supported extending the president’s term beyond 2024, if this appeared as a stand-alone ballot question. A recent survey found 51 percent in favor and 44 against this amendment.
In the end, the Kremlin achieved its goal. Early reports show that the full packet of amendments passed with 78 percent approval and a 68 percent turnout.
But why did Putin seek to extend his rule?
Six months ago, many smart analysts thought Putin would step down as president to head a newly empowered State Council and oversee Russia as its “national leader” — perhaps following the model of Deng Xiaoping in China.
To explain Putin’s motivations, some observers point to his KGB background or Russia’s tradition of strongman rule. Putin himself has highlighted the need to protect Russia’s political stability, such as it is.
But these arguments miss the bigger picture. Since 1991, rulers in consolidated autocracies in the former Soviet Union have frequently sought to extend their rule, regardless of their personal backgrounds, the need for political stability or their country’s historical traditions. Examples include ex-collective farm director Alyaksandr Lukashenko in Belarus in 2004, and Ilham Aliyev — the son of a dictator — in Azerbaijan in 2008. Leaders in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan made similar moves, and did so during periods of stability and instability. Both presidents of Turkmenistan extended their rule beyond their original limit.
Of course, Putin did step down as president in 2008, but in many respects, he kept control as Russia’s prime minister. Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped aside as president in Kazakhstan in 2019, but only after staying in power for 29 years and extending his term in office indefinitely in 2009.
Russia is a personalist autocracy
Putin seems to be following the broader logic of autocratic rule. In recent years, “personalist autocracies” — regimes centered on individuals rather than parties, as in China; or the military, as in Chile under Gen. Augusto Pinochet — have become the most common form of non-democracy. Roughly 40 percent of non-democracies fit this category. Prominent personalist autocrats include Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, both of whom also pushed for constitutional changes to allow them to extend their terms. Personalist autocracies have been the most common form of government in the former Soviet Union since the end of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
Several studies suggest the risks to personalist autocrats of ceding power. Hein Goemans collected data on all non-democracies from 1946 to 2008 and found that 70 percent of rulers in personalist autocracies lost office through coups, revolts or other nonconstitutional means vs. 47 percent for military regimes and just 19 percent for one-party autocracies. In addition, 80 percent of rulers in personalist autocracies ended up in jail, in exile or dead after leaving office, compared with 41 percent for rulers in military regimes and 25 percent for rulers in one-party autocracies. Rulers in military regimes can return to the barracks, and leaders of one-party regimes can return to the party, but personalist autocrats have no soft landing pad.
Russia is better educated, more ethnically homogenous and wealthier than most personalist autocracies. These factors might smooth a political transition, but the odds are not good.
What does viewing Putin’s Russia as a personalist autocracy tell us? Most important, replacing Russia’s leader might change very little — after all, another personalist autocrat in the Kremlin would be likely to follow Putin’s example. Rulers tend to step down from office when they can feel relatively secure that their successor will respect their rights. That outcome is harder to achieve in a personalist autocracy than in a military regime or one-party autocracy.
At a minimum, the constitutional amendments should allow Putin greater leverage over rivals at home and abroad until 2024. At a maximum, he will run for president in 2024 and again in 2030, and retire when he is 84. But as long as Russia remains a personalist autocracy, Putin is unlikely to find a peaceful retirement when he leaves office — and that’s why he will try to stay in power.
Timothy Frye is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University and the author of “Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia” (forthcoming, Princeton University Press). Follow him on Twitter @timothymfrye.