Putin's move for permanent power

Matthew Walther

On Wednesday afternoon, amid surprisingly little fanfare, both houses of the Virginia state legislature voted to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. This made the commonwealth the 38th state, technically making it possible for 40-year-old provision to become ratified as a part of the Constitution.

We are not the only country contemplating constitutional change. The likelihood that anything actually comes of Virginia's approval of the E.R.A. is slim. Not so in Russia, where the prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, and his entire cabinet resigned on Wednesday following a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin for changes that would make both the country's parliament and its relatively insignificant council of state vastly more powerful.

This move is being described by some observers as one that "could symbolize a power shift in the country." That might be true if "symbolize" is defined as pure ceremony. Nothing suggests that Putin's already more or less unilateral authority is about to diminish. In fact, that's exactly what the proposed constitutional changes are meant to shore up.

By investing more power in the legislature, of which the prime minister is the head, and the council, which Putin controls, he is simply preparing himself for the end of what may be his last term as the president of the Russian Federation. The only difference is that unlike in 2008, when the rule limiting him to only two consecutive terms forced him to step aside and become prime minister under the titular presidency of his lieutenant Medvedev, this time he may not bother returning to the presidency. Instead he will be able to rule effectively as a head of government rather than a head of state, not directly subject to term limits and immune from impeachment, backed by a newly empowered legislature and a council of state capable of sweeping actions that are inconceivable at present.

Why is Putin doing this? Is it, as critics such as Bill Browder have suggested, because he is "deeply afraid of something"? I doubt it. It should be clear to all observers that Putin intends to remain in power for as long as possible — perhaps even for the remainder of his life — and that he is willing to do so by any means necessary. But wouldn't it make more sense for him simply to eliminate the provision of the Russian constitution that prevents him from serving for more than eight years at a time?

I think that the answer is obvious. By assuming the humble role of prime minister and ostensibly unfettering his country's legislature, Putin is biting his thumb at critics both at home and abroad who accuse him of being an unelected despot in all but name. How can anyone possibly complain in 2024 when his current term as president is set to expire, that Russia is undemocratic when it will have enjoyed nearly half a decade of newly invigorated democratic institutions? Perhaps, he and his supporters will say, the presidency at times has overstepped the boundaries of its authority, but that is all in the past. Garry Kasparov and Pussy Riot can have nothing to complain about.

Does this mean that Putin will spend the rest of his life as prime minister? Not necessarily. It is possible to imagine that this is only the beginning of a constitutional revolution that will culminate in something like the present state of affairs in Kazakhstan, where Nursultan Nazarbayev spent two decades as president before being named "Leader of the People," a de facto honorary title that has nevertheless allowed him to maintain his grip on the political fortunes of the former Soviet Republic (and to serve as chairman of the all-powerful security council). I for one would not be surprised to see Putin in 10 years grandly announcing his retirement from public life amid protests from a grieving legislature, who insist on declaring him "First Hero-Son of the Federation," an honor he accepts with the utmost reluctance.

In the words of an old protest classic, "This is what democracy looks like," at least in Russia.

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