More Proposed Constitutional Amendments on Second Reading to Duma; Putin Says Resetting Presidential Term Limits to Zero, Theoretically Allowing Him to Run Again, Possible if Approved by Constitutional Court

The constitutional committee appointed by Putin to consider additional possible amendments and changes to the Russian constitution has reportedly received hundreds of proposals on a range of issues, from both the public and those in government. But the deadline for submission of proposals was March 2nd. On that date, several additional proposed constitutional amendments were submitted by Putin himself.

These new proposals, which were accepted by the Duma and will be included in a national vote by Russians on the whole package of constitutional reforms on April 22nd, were obviously intended to placate certain groups in Russia, including lower income Russians, those advocating Russian national independence, and the Orthodox Church whose stance on certain cultural issues reflects the attitude of many Russians.

These proposed amendments include the following as nicely summed up by Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald:

  • The need to mention God in the document.
  • Civil servants being prohibited from holding foreign bank accounts and citizenship.
  • A ban on giving away any Russian territory.
  • The restriction of marriage to the union of a man and a woman, ruling out gay marriage.
  • Provisions to recognize the modern Russian Federation as the successor to the USSR (a move which enshrines its legacy as the victor in World War Two).
  • A mention of “historical truth” to protect “the great achievement of Russians in their defense of the Fatherland” (This is also a reference to the role of the USSR/Russia in World War II and a response to the EU’s attempt to re-write history on behalf of certain elements in Poland and the Baltic states – Natylie)
  • The Russian people will be recognized as the founders of the state (which also implies that the national language is Russian).
  • A guarantee that the minimum wage will not be lower than the cost of living.

What has received even more attention recently, however, is a peculiar turn of events in the Duma in which parliamentarian Valentina Tereshkova, the first Soviet woman in space, proposed that the “clock be reset to zero” – so to speak – on presidential terms at 2024. That would mean that Putin would be able to run again in 2024 and serve what would be the constitutional limit of 2 terms. According to reports, this suggestion seemed to throw the Duma into confusion and Putin subsequently made an unscheduled appearance at the Duma to address the issue. He then said that resetting the clock on presidential terms was possible but would have to be approved by both the Constitutional Court and the Russian people when they vote on April 22nd.

Needless to say, I’m not the only one who has been flummoxed by this. As Paul Robinson explains:

Was this Putin’s aim all along? Did he put Tereshkova up to it? Or was he as blindsided by her proposal as everybody else? It’s not clear. If he’d wanted this, it would have been simpler just to include it in the original amendments. On the other hand, it arguably looks better if it appears to come as a result of some sort of demand from below, especially when voiced by somebody like Tereshkova who has something of a heroic status. But then again, that status means that she has some independent moral authority and doesn’t have to do whatever the Kremlin asks her. So maybe it was her idea after all, and she was acting on her own. In that case, though, why didn’t Putin reject it?

There are several possibilities to speculate on. Was this staged so the Constitutional Court can judge it unconstitutional and Putin can abide by the ruling – there, see, the system works, we have checks and balances?

It makes strategic sense to me that Putin may want to keep the political class guessing as to what exactly he’s going to do and when he exactly is going to do it in order to prevent the jockeying for power he knows will come if he’s perceived as a lame duck who’s leaving soon.

The bottom line is that however impressive of a job Putin has done pulling Russia up from a failed state to a country with a decent standard of living and a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, Putin is mortal and there must be some preparation for taking the training wheels off so new leadership can step in and keep steering the country on the forward path. I believed that is what he was starting to do with his announcement of reforms in January.

For the reasons mentioned above, I think it would be a mistake for Putin to remain president past 2024 rather than stepping back to a behind-the-scenes advisory role. Unless, of course, the plan is to keep him around forever – eventually having his dead body stuffed and propped up in a corner of the Kremlin and governing via seance.

Image result for seance memes

But in all seriousness, in my perusal of Russian history, I’ve noted that any time a leader wanted to institute reforms, they were always inevitably unleashing forces they couldn’t always control. There are going to be unintended consequences. As Russia analyst Gordon Hahn writes:

The entire process is not only mobilizing society and the opposition on the eve of the federal election process, which begins with the Duma election set for September 2021, but may also raise expectations as to the importance of the reform or of the adption of one or another reform to one or another constituency. Herein lies a danger for Putin and Russia’s political stability. ‘Below,’ in society, pro-democracy opposition groups likely have a low enough set of expectations regarding Putin that they expect little in the way of what they regard as positive results, in particular political liberalization or democratization. However, more radical opposition groups as well as more or less pro-regime elements such as the Russian Orthodox Church or nationalists of one stripe or another might pose a bit of a problem. Some among the latter, ‘conservatives’ or traditionalists less interested or even opposed to democratization, are putting forward proposals of another sort. The idea of including the word ‘God’ in an as yet unclarified way or a declaration to the effect that ‘marriage is an institution binding together a man and a woman’ are being put forward. Should the final amendments exclude these or other proposals coming from groups with expectations their proposals would be included, the result could lead dissent and division.

Similarly, the extent to which the amendments touching on the political system affect the duration of Putin’s tenure in some non-presidential office and thus the tempo and depth of the change inherent in 2024, potentitally weakening the political and business prospects of one clan or another, the debate over systemic changes could provoke a split with the ruling elite. Such a split could revolve around disagreements between those who would prefer Putin stay at least until 2024 and take up a serious office or several offices under a new ‘caretaker’ president and those who would prefer a more rapid departure, perhaps even with mid-term presidential elections and a minimal or no role for Putin under the next president.

Perhaps that sheds more light on Putin’s second set of proposed amendments listed above. Bottom line: reform is not easy. Things can get complicated. Putin may just be keeping his options open in case those unintended consequences become too destabilizing – at least, in his mind.

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