Russia has had five different constitutions since the beginning of the 20th century. All of them were linked to the fortunes of a particular leader, rather than being a permanent distillation of national principles.
If exit polls are correct, after voting ends this Wednesday, Russia is about to get its sixth new constitution – this one shaped around President Vladimir Putin.
Russians have been voting over the past week, amid the still-raging coronavirus pandemic, on a sweeping package of more than 100 amendments to the country’s 1993 charter. Unsurprisingly, its best-known feature is a clause that will enable Mr. Putin to evade past term limits and potentially remain in the Kremlin until 2036. The measures are expected to pass handily, but the controversy the effort has kicked up seems unlikely to die down anytime soon.
That begins with questions about why these changes were even needed in the first place, why the Kremlin has rushed them through with hardly any public debate, and why the voting couldn’t have been postponed at least until the ongoing pandemic has finally abated.
“I really can’t understand why this is all being done in such a hurry,” says Margarita Petrikova, a Moscow pensioner, voicing a common note of confusion. “They tell us it’s still risky to enter some closed premises, yet they urge us to come out and vote. I know they say you can do it online, but that seems too complicated. And I don’t understand why the choice is just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the whole thing. What if I like some amendments, but not others?”
Reform in a hurry
Mr. Putin has long resisted introducing major changes to Russia’s fundamental law, in part because he’s managed to rule perfectly well without doing so. But he also has often explicitly argued against devaluing the constitution by capriciously changing it. Now he seems committed to getting this major revision done, and quickly.
Some argue that the official haste is down to fear that the economy will deteriorate, or public disaffection will rise, making it much harder to complete the constitutional overhaul if it is put off for a few months. Mr. Putin’s personal approval ratings remain high, around 60%. But other polls suggest that trust in government institutions is declining while protest moods are rising, as the economic recession brought on by months of coronavirus lockdown deepens.
“Why the rush to get the constitutional voting done? I can’t see any special reason for it, but I guess our authorities are scared that if they wait a few months, people’s moods might change,” says Nikolai Svanidze, a historian and popular media commentator. “It’s summer, moods are positive, but by autumn maybe people will look in their refrigerators and think differently.”
Most countries only amend their basic charters after some national shock or a sea change in public opinion compels it. It’s not clear what the Kremlin was thinking when it put forward a raft of amendments early this year.
Originally, it looked like a design for a more sustainable political system after Mr. Putin had left office in 2024, even if it created a powerful sinecure that might enable him to retain influence for awhile. A constitutional drafting committee then added a range of measures to replace the liberal tone of the 1993 document with socially conservative and nationalistic principles, like recognition of God, a ban on gay marriage, and placing Russian law above international obligations. They also added populist measures, such as indexing the minimum wage and pensions to inflation.
In March, as the coronavirus pandemic hit, the surprise amendment was added to reset the presidential clock, allowing Mr. Putin to run for two more terms. Many analysts note that, while the entire exercise clearly revolves around Mr. Putin, he might surely have found a simpler solution if his only goal was to remain in office for life.
Creating a consensus
Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that the new constitution is a political project aimed at creating a fresh pro-Kremlin social and political consensus, which he dubs “Putin 3.0.”
Mr. Putin’s political longevity – he’s been in power, one way or another, for 20 years – has been based not so much on winning competitive elections, as a Western politician would. Rather, Mr. Kolesnikov says, Mr. Putin has survived by using various tools to create the impression of popular majorities that support him.
The first iteration of Putinism was from 2000 to 2008, when political stability combined with high oil prices and canny economic policies led to rapid growth and rising popular living standards. Mr. Putin’s enduring popularity is still rooted in the perception that he united the country after the disastrous 1990s and ushered in relative prosperity for most Russians.
Russia’s economic growth stalled after the global crash of 2008, and Mr. Putin fashioned a new majority paradigm by successfully standing up to the West’s efforts to sanction and isolate Russia over the domestically popular 2014 annexation of Crimea. That led to a wave of patriotism among average Russians, while the Kremlin gained popularity by successfully resisting Western pressures and asserting Russian influence on the world stage.
But those sources of political popularity are largely exhausted, and the new constitution is Mr. Putin’s way of reviving his momentum through popular mobilization, says Mr. Kolesnikov.
“The basic message is continuity of the stability of the Putin era,” he says. “People are being told that if we don’t defend our conservative-patriotic values, we will lose what we have. Putin needs social mobilization, as demonstrated in this voting, to drive home this message.”
Mr. Putin may take up the option to run again for the presidency in 2024. But for now he is anxious to prevent Russia’s fractious elites from squabbling over the succession.
“Putin is still the only figure who can unite all the elites. No institutions or mechanisms exist to replace this,” Mr. Kolesnikov says. “So, what Putin needs them to hear is, ‘I am not a lame duck.’”
There is also a clear message for Russia’s dissenting minorities, including restive urban liberals and the still-powerful Communist Party. About a quarter of Russians are expected to vote against the constitutional amendments.
“Dissatisfied minorities will be made to understand through the outcome of this vote that Russia has a strong majority, and it supports Putin,” says Mr. Kolesnikov. “Alternatives are not on the table.”
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