Vladimir Putin’s constitutional charge

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

He has been often accused of dragging Russia into a Brezhnev style stagnation. But, at 67, Vladimir Putin shows he can also strike quickly. On 15 January, during his annual address to Parliament, the Russian president took everyone by surprise when he announced sweeping changes to the Constitution intended to revolution the power system in Russia.

The Constitution of 1993 was modelled on the French and American presidential regimes after fierce opposition between parliament and president Boris Yeltsin turned bloody during the assault on parliament.

On 15 January, a few hours after Putin’s speech, prime minister Dmitri Medvedev announced his resignation and Mikhail Mishustin, a former head of the tax system, was named to head the new government.

On January 20, Putin submitted a 29-page document of constitutional amendments to parliament. This had been prepared by a 75-member working group and recommended changes to 13 articles of the Constitution.

On 21 January, Putin announced the composition of a new government and the nomination of Igor Krasnov as Russia’s prosecutor-general, replacing Yuri Chaika appointed presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District. In his capacity of deputy head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Krasnov dealt with controversial investigations into, among others, the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Strong ministers” have kept their jobs, notably Sergei Lavrov (foreign affairs), Sergei Shoygu (defence), Vladimir Kolokoltsev (interior), as well as Alexandr Novak (energy) and Anton Siluanov (finance). Changes affect mostly social and cultural ministries, including the minister of sports who paid for the international doping scandal and the minister of culture for his clumsy reactionary declarations.

On 23 January, the parliament began debates about the constitutional amendments and were due to vote a week after the president made his announcement.

On 12 April, the public will be invited to vote on the constitutional amendments in a form still to be clarified. Officials, including the president’s spokesman, have stressed that the public vote will not amount to a referendum.

The real intention of Putin behind those sensational declarations is everyone’s guess and the man who once said that “life would be boring without rumours” has certainly enjoyed the deluge of explanation and analysis.

What is for sure is :

  1. The announcement is not an improvisation. It results from the work of experts and is coherent with Putin’s previous hints of Constitutional changes needed to modernise the Russian political system. He put at the core “national projects until 2024” for developing the economy and ameliorating life conditions for the population. This is not very new, and lately official statistics have shown that a large part of the 400bn rubles attributed earlier to “national projects” have not been used. Which means a reorientation of resources and a better control of their use by the new government.
  2. The composition of the new government and other changes among high officials mark a sharp turn in the pool for recruitment. Gone is the previous mix of old friends or collaborators, of former military and intelligence services. They leave the field to managers of state departments or state companies who have demonstrated capacities for reform and modernisation. The prime minister is the most obvious example, having ended a successful carrier in government agencies as the head of the taxation office where he developed an internationally recognised model for taxation. Due to their profiles, those new men and women can be expected to back a regime where the state, not private enterprise, is the driving force.
  3. The decision took everyone by surprise, including the opposition which appeared in disarray. Taking position is difficult because the anti-Putin movement is divided by personalities and political agendas, even more so as new figures try to make their print on the opposition scene. Moreover, it is a delicate task to find the right formula to confront head on reforms that, at least on paper, might be a step in the right direction: more power to parliament, a still unprecise form of consultation of the population, and limitation of presidents to two mandates. This leaves few choices for opponents: to denounce all as a farce, which would reinforce their image of being unconstructive; announcing street demonstration, on 29 January, which would look feeble coming after the vote of the Duma; to follow Navalny by digging into the resources of the families’ candidates and reduce the scope of political opposition to kompromat.

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