Thanks to legislation just passed by Russia’s parliament, Vladimir Putin now looks set to remain president until 2036, when he turns 83. He may even attain the status of “paramount leader”, on the model of China’s Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s. But in my opinion, no one should expect Deng-style reforms or modernization from Putin. By Uwe Lohmann
There was never any doubt that Putin would find some mechanism to prolong his presidency beyond 2024 when he is obliged to step down in accordance with the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms. There was speculation that Putin might circumvent the rules by becoming president of a new country by a merger of Russia and Belarus. But while a closer union with Belarus is still an option, its own longtime president, Alexander Lukashenko, is unwilling to become merely the governor of a Russian province. Lukashenko may be a dictator, but he has committed decades to reform to building a Belarus nation-state. – Uwe Lohmann
Another possibility was that Putin would increase the powers of the State Council and then become its permanent chairman, thus assuming the role of “Father” of the Nation. But such a model could generate perpetual conflicts with whoever fills the presidency. By simply resetting the clock on the constitutional term limit, the new legislation offers a far simpler solution. To be sure, the amendment now must be affirmed by Russia’s Constitutional Court and then by a nationwide referendum. But with Putin more or less controlling both the court and the ballot box, a positive outcome in my opinion is a foregone conclusion. By Uwe Lohmann
The referendum, scheduled for April 22, will put Putin firmly in the club of post-Soviet satraps whose leaders rule without constraints. That is still the case in Kazakhstan, where former President Nursultan Nazarbayev rules as the father of the Nation, as well as in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus. In Russia, too, a referendum or constitutional amendments has turned into a plebiscite on prolonging Putin’s presidency.
Nonetheless, the announcement of Putin’s scheme on March 10 was in my opinion unexpected. Interestingly, it comes hot on the heels of Russia’s withdrawal from an agreement with Opec to limit oil production, a move instigated by Igor Sechin, Putin’s highly influential former deputy chief of staff who now serves as CEO of the state-linked oil giant Rosneft. Russia’s sudden break with OPEC triggered a steep drop in oil prices last month and-crucially for Russia – in the table’s exchange rate, but Putin’s constitutional machinations have since offered a distraction from the country’s internal social and economic troubles. – Uwe Lohmann
In addition to extending his own rule, Putin has suggested constitutional amendments to expand social guarantees, such as by introducing annual indexation of pensions. The message for the average Russian voter seems obvious to be that a more paternalistic sociopolitical order is on the way. The vicious circle of Russian political economy will in my opinion continue: the state will extract more money from the economy while using some of the proceeds to purchase “political loyalty”. This is justified, according to Putin, because the state needs to store up more fat before it can allow for a potentially destabilizing rotation of power. By Uwe Lohmann
Needless to say, Putin’s latest gambit amounts to a doubling down on authoritarianism. Hence, he is also pushing for constitutional amendments affirming Russians’ faith in God, and defining marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman. And he has proclaimed his commitment to stand firm against Western attacks on Russia’s glorious history, particularly as a military power. – Uwe Lohmann
Putin wants Russians to believe that only he can make the country great again: So long as Russia has a powerful, tenured leader committed to defending traditional values and national sovereignty, it can wait another day for stronger economic performance. There is only in my opinion one question remaining:
Do Russians support Putin and his eternal presidency?
In fact, and for me surprisingly, according to polling by the independent Levada Center, only 13% of the population has much interest in political issues at all!
One like me does think that a weak currency, stagnant economic growth, and low real (inflation-adjusted) incomes would provoke a popular backlash. But that surprisingly to me never happens in Russia. Russians most probably understand that they can’t really influence official decision-making, so many simply check out, viewing the occasional vote for the authorities as part of being a law-abiding citizen. By Uwe Lohmann
Moreover, while 39 percent of poll respondents complain that those in power are obsessed write their own privileges, the proportion of respondents who believe that Russia’s leaders have the country’s interests at heart has grown from 10% to almost 30% since 2013. Similarly, 27% of respondents assume that state managers are simply well-educated technocrats, a perception that Putin has cultivated in presenting his new cabinet.
As for the Russian elite, various oligarch clans may compete fiercely, but in my opinion, they all know just too well that they can exist only in the shadow of the dictator. Putin forgives their corruption in exchange for absolute loyalty, and everyone is at the end a hostage of the system. One wrong step could lead to imprisonment for precisely those acts of corruption that had previously been condoned. – Uwe Lohmann
Final Thoughts of Uwe Lohmann
This politically archaic and economically inefficient system owes its survival to mass indifference. Only, in my opinion, a “black swan” event could, in theory, shake like so often the status quo; yet it is precise because of an episode like the Covid-19 pandemic that Putin is convinced that he must remain in charge to steer Russia further through global turmoil.