Patrick Armstrong is a former political counselor at Canadian Embassy in Moscow
(NOTE: away in Feb and recovering from a severe cold — not/not CV.)
PUTIN 4EVER. (Russian Constitution text.) In January Putin suggested some amendments to the Constitution to be discussed and put to national vote in a referendum. Which is, I suppose, close enough to the amending procedure set out in Chapter 9. A commission was quickly set up and amendment suggestions came in. The final ones reflected the rather traditionalist flavour of Russia – marriage is between a man and a woman, a reference to God, indissolubility of Russian territory and some social guarantees. (Wikipedia list.)
Two proposals reflect what Russia has learned in the three decades since the first version. Russian legislation will now take primacy over international law and office holders cannot have dual citizenship or foreign residency permits. This is understandable: the original text had been written at a time when Russians were much more hopeful about the outside world than they are now: grim experience has taught them that "international institutions” are another stick to beat them with. (And, given the chaos and destruction that the self-proclaimed "Rules-Based International Order” has produced, even laudable.)
Among the changes suggested by Putin and approved was the removal from Article 81.3 of "for more than two terms running”; in short two terms only for a president. So what we were looking at was a slightly less president-dominated system with a two-term president, the end of naïve expectations about the "Rules-Based International Order” and some declarations to make conservatives happy.
(I do not now remember why the term limit was in the Constitution – my vague memory is that Western advisors insisted on it so as to reduce dictatorship possibilities. There was, I remember, much fear of the Communists coming back in those days. But, a term limit is not normal world practice and most countries don’t worry about it – MacKenzie King was PM of Canada for more than 21 years.)
So far so good and all reasonable enough and sensible.
Enter Valentina Tereshkova. Since we’re changing the Constitution, said she, then we should start the presidential term counting clock all over again. In other words, when Putin finishes this term in 2024, he can run twice more. Did she think this up on her own or was she put up to it? No one seems to know. Putin addressed the Duma, said it was OK with him if the Constitutional Court approved. Which it did. At this point it is reasonable to observe that it is hardly "constitutional” if you rule that any president can restart the clock by making a few twiddles to the Constitution, is it?
The full package has not yet been approved by a referendum on 22 April but all indications are that it will be: a recent poll showed that a solid majority was quite happy to have Putin stay in office. Meretriciously the voters will be asked to approve the whole package or nothing.
So, what to say about all this? There are, as usual, several theories. First are those who have said from the beginning that Putin would contrive a way to stay on forever. Well, there isn’t much of a retort to them except to to wonder why he didn’t just amend Article 81.3, is there? Another theory holds that Putin feels he has to stay on because only he can manage things in the dangerous times of the decline of the Imperium Americanum. In his speech to the Duma he referred to Roosevelt’s breaking the two-term custom, adding: "When a country is going through such upheavals and such difficulties (in our case we have not yet overcome all the problems since the USSR, this is also clear), stability may be more important and must be given priority.” Well, that decline is undeniably dangerous and there will be many crisis points; but it will take several dangerous decades and Putin certainly won’t be here when the power earthquake is finally over. And there’s always some crisis, somewhere. Another idea is that what he has really done is leave the possibility of running again thereby avoiding a lame duck period before he does go in 2024. Maybe: Putin is coy in this interview.
But, altogether, the manoeuvre leaves a bad taste in the mouth: manipulative, shabby, slipshod, legal only in the most pedantic sense, arbitrary, second-rate and poorly thought out. Very disappointing to someone who thought Putin did not want to be the Turkmenbashi of Russia.
If the system that he and his team spent 20 years building doesn’t work without him, then it doesn’t work.
© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Canada Russia Observer