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From Russia, no love

  • Published at 12:00 am January 18th, 2020
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File photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia December 19, 2019 Reuters

Russia’s cabinet has resigned, and it’s all part of Putin’s plan

ussian President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for 20 years and faces term limits in 2024, has begun his effort to consolidate control and maintain his hold on power after the next elections. The cabinet and prime minister’s resignations are part of that effort. 

Putin wants his majority in the parliament -- the State Duma -- to pass constitutional amendments that will allow him to remain in political control.

This move is not unexpected, at least among Kremlin watchers and scholars like me who have studied Russian elections for over 30 years. Putin signaled the change in his annual press conference in December, where he spoke about the potential for constitutional reforms. 

On January 15, Putin gave his annual state of the nation address and unveiled “serious changes to the political system.” In response to the proposed constitutional amendments, which Putin is promoting as “reforms,” Prime Minister Medvedev and his government resigned. 

This move should not be seen as protest, although it might be useful for Medvedev, a longtime ally of Putin’s, to feign independence and appear as if he made the move in dissent.

The proposal is being touted in leading Russian newspapers as “democratic reform.” In fact, while appearing to redistribute power among the high-level players in the Kremlin, the details that will determine power relations remain vague.

On Monday, Putin’s spokesman stated that specifics will be developed in consultation with the Russian people. Given regime controls over voting and national campaigns, this nod to the people is a form of window dressing. 

In making these changes and accepting the government’s resignation, President Putin is laying the groundwork for several paths to retain power, including as prime minister or head of a strengthened State Council, an advisory body to the president.

Why did it happen?

President Putin faces two potential roadblocks if he wants to maintain political control through the next election cycle: Parliamentary elections in 2021 and presidential elections in 2024. The first problem is term limits that mandate he leave the presidency. 

The second problem is that Putin and his United Russia Party need to win large majorities in parliamentary and presidential elections.

This plan, betting on the regime’s capacity to control elections, is risky. Outright electoral fraud will almost surely provoke protest. Still, these so-called reforms are timed well before the election to allow Putin and his allies to rebuild support in the wake of any negative reaction. The Kremlin is preserving room to respond and correct course. 

What’s next?

Putin’s regime has successfully sold unpopular reforms to sceptical voters in the past. Earlier government attempts to promote pension and housing program changes provide a model for superficial responsiveness to popular demands. 

To channel discontent, Putin proposed a national referendum on the changes.

So, Duma deputies will hold meetings in their districts. Party leaders will meet with constituents and hear their concerns. Officials will make amendments to the proposed changes that appear to address those concerns, but in ways that don’t fundamentally change their intent. The process will occur quickly to thwart any opposition organization. 

As elections approach, the Kremlin will warn of potential crisis, offering Putin as the guarantor of stability. The message will be, as it has been in the past, that Putin is the bulwark against crisis.

What does this mean to the US?

While the Putin regime’s domestic policy is not popular, his ability to project Russian power abroad is. The US can expect Putin to challenge its policies. I believe Putin will continue to meddle in US politics and elections to prolong the country’s democratic crisis. 

Distracting the US with domestic strife also limits its capacity to challenge Russia abroad. 

Regina Smyth is Associate Professor of Political Science, Indiana University. A version of this article previously appeared in The Conversation UK and has been reprinted under special arrangement.