A strange thing happened following President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of plans to change the Russian constitution. Two Moscow municipal councilors requested and received permission to hold a protest rally on February 1 against the changes, but then retracted their application, having apparently realized the protest would not get enough support from the public.

Putin’s proposals include giving more power to parliament at the expense of the president, limiting future presidents to a total of two terms (rather than the current ban on more than two consecutive terms), and giving more power to the State Council, an advisory body. The changes were widely interpreted as the start of a power transition in Russia: Putin is obliged by the constitution to step down when his current term ends in 2024. Analysts predicted that with a new president kept in check by the reforms, Putin himself could move over to head the newly boosted State Council, giving him a way of retaining some control. 

It may on the surface seem amazing that something as insignificant as last year’s elections for the Moscow municipal parliament could spark the second biggest street protests of Putin’s rule while the latest developments, which opposition politicians have dubbed the official dawn of “Putin forever,” have so far provoked little ire.

Why this apparent contradiction? Because protests are triggered by dashed hopes, not anticipation of the future. Ahead of the Moscow elections, people were disappointed that opposition candidates were not even being allowed to run for office. Putin’s proposed reforms, far from disappointing people’s expectations, have forestalled them. The authorities’ actions and words on the matter offer no definitive proof that it really is “Putin forever,” even if objective analysis suggests that this interpretation is correct.

Putin’s current term does not end until 2024. By taking action earlier than people had expected, the authorities have created the impression that they are changing the status quo, not cementing it.

Following Putin’s announcement, the entire government changed. The enthusiasm with which the new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, has been greeted isn’t just about him personally or his previous success as head of the tax service. It stems from the urge to hear a new name and see a new face. This explains the lack of much appetite for protests. The events of this month are perceived not as the perpetuation of the current leadership, but as the appearance within it of someone who is, at long last, not Putin and not former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

No one doubts that, had he really wanted to, Putin could have found a way to stay on as president. Certainly there was nothing to stop him putting Medvedev forward as his replacement again (Medvedev previously served as president from 2008 to 2012 to help Putin observe the constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms). Medvedev’s return to the presidency was seen as one of the most likely outcomes, and while it still cannot be ruled out, he is no longer prime minister, and it seems there is a real chance that the next president will be neither Putin nor Medvedev.

Ordinary Russians were never going to protest against Medvedev’s long-awaited removal. In his eight years as prime minister, Medvedev had become a target for public frustration. His departure now, when it was not really expected, seems to voters like something of a bonus. 

The latest reshuffle violated two key principles that Putin has previously followed: not to give up “his” people, or those who have been targeted by the opposition or the West. Getting rid of the unpopular former culture minister Vladimir Medinsky and the scandal-tainted former sports minister (and longtime Putin associate) Vitaly Mutko was certainly never going to elicit protests from the public. It seems that the new government has been chosen not to reward those loyal to Putin, but to perform a certain task. People are unlikely to protest until they know just what that task is. 

As for the proposed changes to the State Council, they are still too vague to inspire people to take to the streets. The theory that Putin will become the lifelong head of the council with unknown powers isn’t enough. And the most clearly defined of all Putin’s proposals—to limit future presidents to a total of two terms—is seen as a progressive innovation rather than cause to protest.

This strategy of commencing change before anyone expected it and at a rapid pace while introducing new names and rafts of reforms have left most Russians dumbfounded and intrigued, but not necessarily angry.

People may react differently only if the constitutional changes turn out to contradict their expectations. Right now, the general consensus is that Putin will step down from the presidency, even if it is effectively to move upward. 

When the proposed amendments were published as a draft legislative bill, however, it became clear that presidential powers—with the exception of the two-term limit—would not decrease, and in some ways would even indirectly increase. Changing the constitution could in theory mean that the clock is reset on presidential terms, thereby allowing Putin to be reelected while he works on his proposed changes to the State Council in preparation for his move there. 

For now, this scenario looks less likely than that of Putin backing another candidate and then moving up to a role which carries even more authority. But if for any reason Putin chooses this scenario, then people will find their expectations confounded. Then there really will be a risk of genuine and unpredictable protests.

By:
  • Alexander Baunov