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In recent days, one question has divided Russia’s political analysts: did Vladimir Putin plan all along to reset the clock on his presidential terms, enabling him to run again in 2024, or was it an improvised move? Many are convinced that there was no such plan at the outset, and that the decision was made in response to events unfolding. It’s well known that Putin is not so much a strategist as a good tactician who reacts to circumstances swiftly, at times to considerable success.
This does not mean, however, that he has no plans at all. Both theories—that Putin lost control, and that he is implementing a cunning plan—are extremes.
The question of whether Putin knew on December 19 last year, when he proposed removing the word “consecutive” from the law barring presidents from running for more than two consecutive terms, that he would reset the clock on terms altogether, or whether that decision was made along the way is one of critical importance in understanding how Russia’s power system and leader operate. Was what happened on March 10 a special op and well-planned move, or improvisation?
The start of the reform was not the result of failed plans for Russia to absorb Belarus (another myth), but the culmination of lengthy preparations. For two years, the Kremlin simply collected ideas for potential amendments to the constitution, without any guidelines or specific goals.
By December last year, there was an approximate short list of what Putin would like to see in the constitution, a rough outline of which he then provided in his annual address to the Federal Assembly (both houses of the Russian parliament) in January.
From the very beginning, there were two key elements to the reform that were personally important to Putin. The first was resetting the clock on presidential terms. There is at least one thing that points to that: eight years ago, Putin stated with confidence that any amendments to the constitution would not apply retrospectively.
If Putin had announced a reset straight away, however, it would have prompted immediate accusations of usurpation of power from the opposition and the West, which would have ruined the dream of a new “Putin constitution” for a new Russia. There would have been no public discussion of the topics added to the new constitution; only talk of how Putin was bending it to his own will. This would have seriously devalued the entire process of constitutional reform.
At the same time, it’s incorrect to assume that the entire reform was thought up with the sole purpose of resetting the clock on presidential terms. It’s obvious that it has an ideological significance for Putin. He has long felt that he has a mission to fulfill, and advancing his own constitution is a key component of that. The reform package is not just a cover-up operation; it’s a separate goal in its own right.
It was, therefore, a major challenge to unveil the resetting of the clock in the right light. Given Putin’s wish to conceal his intentions from even his own administration, there could be no clear plans for how to realize that goal. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and now an elderly Duma deputy who suggested resetting the clock to allow Putin to run again, only appeared in the plan at the last moment, in a moment of improvisation.
Whether Putin wanted to be persuaded to stay on, was testing his entourage for their readiness for a power transition, or was simply waiting for the right moment, we may never know. But there is no evidence that he was preparing to choose a successor, or that he was carving out an alternative position for himself for after he stepped down. Speculation that he would move over to head the State Council after he proposed enhancing its powers in January proved wrong when it was rejected by Putin himself. He had hinted repeatedly that there should be no diarchy, no mentoring, and no weakening of the presidency.
Can this be considered a strategic cunning plan? Of course not. The implementation of the reset plan was improvised and hurried, since Putin had left it until the last moment, giving his team no time to prepare. According to one source, Tereshkova received the amendments that she suggested in parliament that same morning, and the people who briefed her on the mission did not know themselves what the outcome would be. Putin asked for several options to be put forward, and promised to respond to them.
The second key element prioritized in the reform from its very beginning was a strong presidential role. Strengthening the presidency was the main topic of the president’s state of the nation address in January.
There was no contradiction between the first institutional amendments and a later package of ideological amendments to the constitution. The first came from the president himself, while the second became a bargaining chip and a way of popularizing the reforms. The ideological amendments—which brought in God, children, and sovereignty—were not a coverup operation, but an attempt to turn Putinism into a state institution. It was an attempt to share responsibility for the reform with the public.
Everything outside these two basic interests—the term reset and strong presidential powers—was improvisation and was implemented in a hurry, with major mistakes made along the way. The reform ended up being legally dubious, which could have serious consequences.
Putin was apparently convinced that the reset was legal, and personally moved to boost the role of president, while encouraging the ideological reforms, having shared the initiative for this with lawmakers and activists, over whom he lost partial control. But except for this overall plan, nothing was ready by January 2020. What Putin wanted to see in the constitution was drafted immediately and protected as inviolable elements of the future reform. Everything else became a political bazaar.
Putin may not be a strategist, but where his personal convictions are concerned—such as “the law does not apply retroactively” as legal grounds to run in new elections—he is intransigent. Make no mistake: Putin’s fifth term began in March 2020, and it is nothing less than a new regime.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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