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Putin Until 2036? The Story Doesn’t End There…

Russians went to the polls between June 25th and July 1st to vote on a package of constitutional amendments proposed by President Vladimir Putin back in January this year. The vote was originally scheduled for April 22nd but was delayed due to COVID-19.

  • For Putin, the vote was a resounding success, with 78% of votes in favour of amending the constitution which would allow him to serve another two terms as the president.
  • This victory comes at an important moment, as Russia’s COVID-19 cases reach the third highest in the world and a large diesel spill in the arctic puts pressure on the Russian government.

The implications of the amendments go much further than letting Putin stay in power. They aim to restructure how the government is formed and how policy is prioritized.

The Takeaway: Putin’s package of amendments enshrine Russian conservative nationalism in the constitution, rebalance the power of Russian state institutions at some expense to the presidency, and opens Putin’s options for a future in Russian politics.

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Mainstream coverage is focusing on Putin’s termlimit as Russian President being reset, allowing him to serve two more terms – something he hasn’t yet ruled out.

This isn’t the first time that Putin has had his presidential term limit reset.

  • In 2008, following Putin’s first two terms in office, Putin endorsed fellow United Russia member Dmitry Medvedev for president;
  • Medvedev and United Russia won the election and as president, appointed Putin as Prime Minister;
  • After a single term out of office, Putin was again elected president in 2012 and is currently serving his fourth term.

Interestingly, the amendments remove“in a row” from the two-term constitutional limit and give the Duma, Russia’s parliament, the power to approve candidates for Prime Minister.

  • These remove the loophole which allowed Putin to serve four terms so far.

What isn’t being talked about:

The embedding of Russian conservative nationalism in the constitution and how that might affect minority groups across the world’s largest country.

  • Russian legal supremacy over international treaties cements its territorial integrity in response to global pressure over Crimea. This echoes Putin’s 2016 withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC).
  • Banning same-sex marriage and including mention of “God” in the constitution aims to preserve traditional Russian family and religious values. No specific reference is made to Russian Orthodoxy though.
  • The Russian language has been formalized as the “language of a state-forming people,” legally placing it above the languages of its constituent republics, although each Republic may establish a state language alongside Russian.
  • “Diminishing the significance” of Russian victory in WW2 has been banned and Russia as the successor of the USSR has also been included in the amendments.

The restructuring of government institutions can’t be overlooked either. The amendments strengthen both elected institutions in forming governments, while also formalizing a powerful yet unelected body to set national priorities:

  • The Duma has gained the right to refuse the president’s candidate for Prime Minister and appoint certain cabinet members without president’s approval.
  • The Federation Council, Russia’s senate legislature, will be consulted on appointing key ministers in defence, foreign affairs, and internal affairs, giving both representative legislatures more say in forming a government.
  • The unelected State Council will become a formal institution whose purpose is to advise the president and guide domestic and foreign policy priorities, giving an unelected government body substantial influence in Russian politics.

Not everyone in Russia was behind the amendments. The arctic region of Nenets being the only district to reject the amendments, preferring not to amalgamate with a poorer neighbouring district.

  • A number of Russian internet “influencers” also claimed to have rejected offers to promote the vote for fear of alienating their audiences.

The International response has been subdued, but critics raised issues with both the content of the amendments and the validity of the vote.

  • The EU’s diplomatic body made a statement condemning amendments related to international law, the unfair campaigning standards, and called for voting manipulation reports to be investigated.
  • US State Department Spokesperson and OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) representative criticized the amendments resetting Putin’s presidential term limit and highlighted reports of voting irregularities.
  • Statistical evidence claiming widespread voter fraud was published by prominent electoral researcher Sergei Shpilkin.
  • NATO and the OSCE have yet to make any statements in response to the vote.

Putin’s future isn’t necessarily as president. With his approval ratings reaching their lowest point, the amendments leave his options open. Prominent academics on Russian politics have floated a few possibilities as to how Putin could remain influential.

  • Immunity and the right to hold senate office for life has been included in the amendments targeting the presidency;
  • The formalization of the State Council, an unelected institution, gives Putin the opportunity to continue guiding Russian policy. This move would echo that of former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down after thirty years and heads a similar Security Council.

The Bottom Line: For the future of Russian democracy, the effects of these amendments are not yet clear. Despite bolstering the elected legislatures, Putin’s United Russia party has consistently dominated control of the Duma and does not have a history of opposing the president. The new power wielded by the State Council in influencing policy will also challenge the democratic process in Russia.