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The Evolution of Putinism: Constitutional Change and Regime Stability

Date & Time

Mar. 2, 2021
9:30am – 11:30am ET




The initial discussion of Russia’s 2020 constitutional reform focused on the “zeroing” provision that allows President Putin to pursue two more terms in office. Yet, the far-reaching changes also lay the groundwork for Putinism 4.0. To understand these longer-term implications of constitutional reform, we asked nine experts to write essays from the perspective of national institutions, elites, governance, and state-society relations for the April 2021 issue of the journal Russian Politics. In this panel, the authors briefly outlined their arguments in the forthcoming journal.

Selected Quotes

Fabian Burkhardt

"If you look at the 1993 constitution, you have what many call super-presidentialism, extremely strong presidency compared to other countries. What I argue is basically if you looked at the changes that have occurred and have been occurring over the last 20-30 years that the presidency has been accumulating even more power by federal law, by presidential decrees, and by decisions of the Constitutional Court. But what the paradox actually is, and the constitutional changes actually increase presidential power, even more… the paradox is that this very strong formal institution of power does not always increase capacity."

Vladimir Gel’man

"I characterized Russia’s political economic order as an instance of bad governance, as a system aimed at rent-seeking as a major goal and purpose of governing the country. To put it bluntly, it basically means that Russia’s government exists to steal as much as possible for as long as possible. The problem is that constitutional changes contributed to the extension of the time horizon for Russia’s rulers and prevented major unwanted changes."

J. Paul Goode

"On the one hand, these are no meaningless changes, I also don’t think it’s really a strategy, much less a strategy for stability… I think what often gets lost in a conversation about the constitutional amendments, because we really seem to focus on the distribution of power is that so much of the debate, both in terms of elite dynamics and in terms of the campaign to mobilize the nationwide vote, all of that basically avoided the most substantive aspects of the reforms, for the most part, the public and the elite debate focused on patriotism, it focused on social issues, things like pensions, right, and this was a Herculean effort to draft, to promote, to vote, and I think all of this ultimately shows that, first of all, patriotic legitimization is something that has been crucial to Putin’s regime and it remains crucial and this exemplifies that."

Ivan S. Grigoriev

"There are three important sources of innovation from which the amendments stem: the first of these sources and the one that I cover the most in my paper is actually the fact that before these amendments, Vladimir Putin had a very strong aversion to amending the constitution, so for a very long time, for two decades, he was not changing anything, well, except for the number of regions and the term limits of the legislature and the president, but generally the constitution was very stable."

Ben Noble

"One of the major things that was achieved by these constitutional changes is allowing Putin to run again in 2024 and possibly stay in power until he’s 83 in 2036. I’m not saying that the other features of constitutional change aren’t important, definitely not, and those papers make it very clear, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the centrality of that amendment made by Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and that set piece of political theater in the State Duma when Putin came down after her proposal into the body and said, 'I will reluctantly, if the constitutional court allows me, I will accept this amendment that will allow me to stay in power,' and he admitted after the fact that the core logic behind that was to stop the elite from focusing on the question of succession, so I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the centrality of that amendment allowing Putin to remain in power for two more presidential terms and the fact that that was motivated in terms of elite management."

Nikolay Petrov

"Even before Putin announced the constitutional reform, there was already a lot of speculation saying that it should be the State Council as the body to allow Putin to stay in power after 2024. When finally the law on the State Council was adopted, it looks now like the State Council itself is almost the same body of power as it used to be after 2018, but what is new is the State Council presidium is now much bigger, much better organized, but it’s too early to speculate about the importance of this body because it’s still at the stage of formation, so we do not know how big or how well financed the apparatus of the State Council will be, but in my view, it looks like an extension of the presidential staff at the expense of the government and of regional governments rather than anything else. So if there are two general trends which we can notice in all these changes, one is the weakening of all of the other institutions and the other is the strengthening of the so-called big president."

Regina Smyth

"In a sense, this was an attempt with social policy to look, to give the illusion of “less bad” governance by defining a new agenda, so here, the social changes define not only a political agenda that the state feels like it could maybe manage, although we saw problems last week, but also a political platform for upcoming elections. So while Putin staying in power is clearly critical here, I think we’re now engaged in a permanent campaign where a lot of this is about electoral management."

Sarah Wilson Sokhey

"The constitutional changes are not much ado about nothing, it’s very certainly the groundwork for a new stability strategy and we’ll see if it works or not, is the real question, and so, I think that there’s this assumption that Putin has a stronger grip on power than he may actually have… There are vulnerabilities and serious vulnerabilities in Putin’s rule in Russia, in his popularity and the difficulty is, of course, that we’ll know when things are going to change when they change, it’s very difficult to predict the future."

Article Abstracts:  Forthcoming Issue of Russian Politics

Russia’s 2020 Constitutional Reform: The Politics of Institutionalizing the Status Quo

William E. Pomeranz, Deputy Director, Kennan Institute, Wilson Center

Regina Smyth, Professor, Indiana University; Wilson Center Fellow

Abstract: The articles in this issue explore the longer-term implications of Russia’s 2020 Constitutional Reform process. Assessing constitutional change from different theoretical and empirical approaches, these authors find that the constitution largely codified the status-quo as it had evolved over the past decade. The resulting institutional changes solidified the personalist political system that concentrates power in one leader. These reforms also created new mechanisms to preclude elite defection and generate societal quiescence. At the same time, the three-staged reform process that included formal adoption, national vote, and legal reconciliation, introduced new political risk by raising societal expectations, reinforcing cleavages through patriotic legitimization strategies, introducing new rigid structures, and relying on personalism and networks over institutional governance. These risks do not predict state failure but they suggest new challenges that will continue to shape Russian political development.

Putin’s 2020 Constitutional Amendments: What Changed? What Remained the Same?

William E. Pomeranz, Kennan Institute, Wilson Center

Abstract: Constitutional reform dominated Russia’s legal and political agenda in 2020. Starting with Putin’s January 15, 2020 state-of-the-nation address, the 1993 Yeltsin constitution was amended and substantially transformed to meet Putin’s immediate and more long-term political objectives. In the process a flawed but forward-looking document has been stripped of much of its liberal potential and instead been converted into a more traditional top-down system of governance. Putin did not just overturn the term limits on his presidency. He created a new power vertical (the unified system of public power), a stronger presidency, and a more subservient judiciary. Moreover, Putin’s amendments undermine the constitution’s internal consistency by introducing numerous contradictions into Russia’s founding law. In particular, while technically observing the constitution’s procedural requirements, he managed to downgrade Russia’s civil liberties – the highest value under the 1993 constitution – while elevating and expanding Russia’s social rights.

What Changes for the Constitutional Court with the New Russian Constitution?

Ivan S. Grigoriev, Associate Professor, Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg

Abstract: Of the 206 amendments introduced to the Russian constitution and adopted on July 1, 2020, 24 deal directly with the Constitutional Court, its organization, functioning, and the role it plays in the political system. Compared to many other, these are also rather precise and detailed, ranging from the number of judges on the bench, their nomination and dismissal, to the Court’s inner procedures, new locus standi limitations, and the primacy of the Constitution over Russia’s international obligations. Most changes only reproduce amendments brought to the secondary legislation over the last twenty years, and are therefore meant to preserve the status quo rather than change anything significantly. At the same time, a number of amendments aim at politicizing and instrumentalizing the Court for the president’s benefit, marking a significant departure from the previous institutional development.

Institutionalizing Personalism: The Russian Presidency after Constitutional Changes

Fabian Burkhardt, Research Fellow, Political Science Division, Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Regensburg, Germany

Abstract:The 2020 constitutional changes considerably increase presidential powers while sending mixed signals about presidential transition. The main driver of the amendments were term limits. The “zeroing” of Putin’s presidential terms enhances certainty for himself by fostering uncertainty for others. But there is more to the amendments: Numerous changes are not new, they simply align sub-constitutional powers the presidency had been accumulating with the constitutional text. The embedding of term limit circumvention in a comprehensive constitutional overhaul is a risk-hedging strategy to avert resistance by weakening the signal about Putin’s intentions. Constitutional changes are therefore an instrument of elite coordination. The amendments also increase presidential flexibility. This expedited regime personalization is detrimental to governance and will make repression more prevalent. But it also creates more risks for Putin. Irregardless of how presidential succession will play out, Putin’s legacy will be a highly personalized authoritarian regime with a constitutionally unconstrained presidency.

Constitution, Authoritarianism, and Bad Governance: The Case of Russia

Vladimir Gel’man, Professor, European University at St. Petersburg and the University of Helsinki

Abstract: Among many arguments for constitutional changes presented in the wake of the 2020 campaign for the popular vote in Russia, there was the idea that “cementing” Russia’s political landscape for the sake of the regime’s durability would serve as a tool for improvement of quality of governance. This argument, in a way, followed the essential point of Mancur Olson describing many autocrats across the globe as “roving bandits” with their short-term time horizons and incentives for predatory behavior. To what extent may the constitutional extension of the time horizon of Russia’s authoritarian regime contribute to conversion of Russia’s state officials and top managers from the “roving” to the “stationary” model, in Olson’s terms? On the basis of previous research, I argue that the nature of Russia’s political regime – electoral authoritarianism under personalist rule – prevents such a trajectory of further evolution. Indeed, the set of constitutional changes adopted in Russia in July 2020 is likely to preserve bad governance as a mechanism of maintenance of politico-economic order, as intentionally built and developed during the post-Soviet period. While certain technocratic solutions for Russia’s governance, aimed at “fool-proofing”, may avert the risks of major disasters, under conditions of durable authoritarianism the use of these devices will not result in major advancements in the quality of governance. Rather, they may contribute to further decay and aggravation of the numerous vices of bad governance.

Constitutional Reform and the Value of Social Citizenship

Regina Smyth, Professor, Indiana University

Sarah Wilson Sokhey, Associate Professor, University of Colorado, Boulder

Abstract: Viewed through the lens of social policy, Russia’s 2020 constitutional reform codifies existing priorities without addressing the issues that have fragmented the meaning of social citizenship. Placing these changes in theoretical and historical context, we identify the core causes of inequity in the social welfare system, the sustained gap between state promises, and Russians’ lived experience. Our case studies highlight the sources of shared social grievances and the obstacles to national collective action that maintain stability in the facing of increased localized protest actions. We conclude by emphasizing the importance of observing the opposing forces of continuity and change in Russian politics as they define and redefine the meaning of social citizenship.

Patriotic Legitimation and Everyday Patriotism in Russia’s Constitutional Reform

J. Paul Goode, McMillan Chair of Russian Studies, Institution of European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University

Abstract: Russia’s 2020 Constitutional reform was notable not just for the substantial institutional changes introduced, but also for the almost complete lack of public discussion of those changes in elite debates or the public campaign for the nationwide vote. Instead, proposals to write social and patriotic issues into the Constitution absorbed the lion’s share of coverage. These issues were not superfluous, but rather reveal the dynamics of patriotic legitimation and the role of everyday patriotism in Russian politics today. Among Russia’s elite, patriotic legitimation regulates competition, determines the boundaries of acceptable public politics, and provides access to regime patronage. For the public, the avoidance of politics and the appropriation of Russian’s everyday patriotism facilitated the mobilization of an apolitical electorate in the nationwide vote. While the reform may have strengthened the institutional basis of Putin’s rule, it potentially limits the regime’s adaptability and could affect its long-term survivability.

From Constitution to Law: Implementing the 2020 Russian Constitutional Changes

Ben Noble, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies; Associate Fellow, Chatham House; Senior Research Fellow: National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow.

Nikolay Petrov, Professor, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow; Senior Research Fellow, Chatham House

Abstract: Although 4 July 2020 saw the coming into force of constitutional changes in Russia, this was far from the end of the story. Most clearly, these changes to the 1993 constitution required implementation, including through amendments to, and the writing of new pieces of, federal legislation. In part, this process was the mundane work of legal bureaucrats, tweaking and creating many pieces of legislation to reflect the new constitutional text. But the implementation process also reveals much more about the broader constitutional reform project. This article reviews the implementation process, discussing its complexity, the improvisation shown when fleshing out certain new constitutional details, its relationship with other political developments, and the chasm laid bare between Putin’s promise of the rebalancing of power in his 15 January 2020 Address to the Federal Assembly versus the reality of reform in practice.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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