After a week of voting, with plenty of inducements to get people to the polls, Russians have backed constitutional changes that could keep President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin longer than Josef Stalin.
With most precincts now counted, the Central Election Commission says 78% of voters came out in favor and turnout was 65%. It's almost too impressive — given the ongoing epidemic, economic crisis and questions about voting procedures — for the genuine popular endorsement the president craved. That assessment may take time.
More immediately, Putin has restored his status as a permanent, if inscrutable, fixture at the pinnacle of power. With his presidential terms reset to zero, he has all options open when his current mandate ends in 2024. The revamped constitution doesn't stop there either. It arms him, even as his popularity has waned, with extra powers to steer Russia when it's facing some of its biggest challenges under his leadership. It also suggests he doesn't think his next decade or so will be his easiest.
The Kremlin has long worried about succession, and rightly so. When time begins to run out for authoritarian leaders, the elites who support them become restless, potential substitutes jostle for position and the system begins to look fragile. It's no accident, as we've written before, that Putin rushed citizens to the polls.
From the moment he was reelected two years ago, there were three options: Step down gracefully at the end of his term, pick a malleable replacement or find a way to stay on. The first was always implausible. Putin's description in a hagiographic documentary aired before the poll suggested he sees the transfer of power as a needless distraction. We need to work, he tells the interviewer, not hunt for successors. The second alternative was no more likely: Putin, after all, was himself Boris Yeltsin's hand-picked replacement. In neighboring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev has found it hard to retain control once outside the presidency, as have others.
That left the third choice — adjusting the rules — in the mold of Xi Jinping, after China abolished term limits in 2018, or Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev. The vote that culminated on Wednesday, endorsing the comprehensive overhaul of the constitution, formalized that: Putin can stand again to remain in the Kremlin, or step aside into a father-of-the-nation role, such as running the newly invigorated state council, an advisory body. Importantly, while he's signaled he will stay on, he has stopped short of confirming he will and, if so, how. By keeping everyone guessing, he's making it near-impossible for rent-seeking oligarchs or potential rivals to position themselves for what comes next.
But the entire exercise was not just about saving Putin from being considered a lame duck.
Yeltsin's 1993 constitution, brought in at a time of intense political strife, was contradictory and tangled. It was also Russia's most liberal, pluralist constitution, and encouraged hope. The 2020 document does not. Instead, it prepares the man in the top job to manage Russia in a potentially more hostile environment. To date, Putin's ability to run the country has been underpinned by economic growth, falling inflation, high oil prices — and for a period from 2014, by the wave of popular support for his move on Crimea. Yet the effect of that sequence of extraordinary events is waning, says Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London.
While many of the amendments directly contradict the spirit of Yeltsin's document, they are in part about pandering to various constituencies, from the nationalists to the Russian Orthodox Church. They helpfully camouflage the small matter of allowing Putin to potentially rule until he is 83. As Ben Noble of University College London points out, not all of the measures are even entirely new— just new to the constitution.
Yet a strong presidency has become a super-presidency. Putin gets a greater ability to interfere with the judiciary by dismissing judges. He gets a stronger veto to block legislation. He gains immunity from prosecution. That matches ongoing efforts elsewhere to tighten control over everything from the media to the theater stage.
He may need all of that if popular disappointment increases faster than economic growth.
Some of the government's past crisis-proofing efforts have worked to ward off the worst of this downturn, including keeping public debt low and foreign reserves high. The recession looks shallower than feared.
But recovery will be slow and painful. Job losses have soared. Corporate bankruptcies are expected to surge when a moratorium is lifted in October. The epidemic, meanwhile, has not fully ebbed: Russia is still registering more than 6,500 new cases a day.
In his next act, Putin will still prioritize stability and will surely turn back to his $400 billion national projects. That won't fix the need for more innovation and enterprise, the impact of a weak oil price or international isolation, which would be likely to increase in the event of a Joe Biden presidential victory in the US Putin's new powers will at least keep critics at bay.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the UK, Italy and Russia.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement."