Discussing proposed amendments to the Russian constitution a few days ago, I remarked that the devil would be in the details. Well now we have the details. Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin established a 75-person commission to review the constitution, but no soon had it started work than he dispatched a 29-page list of detailed amendments to the Russian parliament for consideration, which makes one wonder what the point of the commission was. Anyway, the proposals (which you can read in Russian here) make for interesting reading, and to some degree confirm my earlier suspicions that there might be rather less to all this than all the hype had led people to believe.
The main thing people have been talking about is Putin’s statement a week ago that the right to appoint the Prime Minister and other members of the Russian government would pass from the president to the State Duma (lower house of parliament). This has been seen as a step towards the creation of a ‘responsible government’ – i.e. a government responsible to parliament. This is not the same as a parliamentary government, and in his speech Putin made it clear that Russia needed to retain a powerful presidency. Yesterday he repeated this thought, saying that due to Russia’s large size and its mix of numerous ethnic and religious groups, parliamentary government was inadvisable and Russia ‘still needs a strong presidential power.’
In fact, as Leonid Bershidsky rightly points out, the proposed constitutional amendments actually augment presidential power in some ways, particularly in terms of the appointment and dismissal of judicial officials. But what is really significant is what the amendments submitted to parliament say about how members of the government will be chosen.
First, it is proposed to amend Article 103a. of the constitution. At present, this says that the jurisdiction of the State Duma includes ‘consent to the appointment of the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation by the President of the Russian Federation’. To this will be added: ‘confirmation, on the recommendation of the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation, of the candidatures of the deputy Chairmen of the Russian Federation and of federal ministers, except for federal ministers listed in point d of Article 83 [i.e. ministers dealing with issues of security, defence, and justice].’
This does indeed augment the power of the Duma, as it will henceforth have a say in the appointment of individual ministers as well as the prime minister, although it’s a limited augmentation of power as some of the most important ministries will be excluded. But the crunch comes in the detail about how the Prime Minister and individual ministers will be designated. As said, Putin had suggested that in the future it would be the Duma not the president who would do the choosing. Now we know the details, and it turns out that the reality will be rather different.
This is what the current Russian constitution says (Article 111.1):
The Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be appointed by the President of the Russian Federation with the consent of the State Duma. [Председатель Правительства Российской Федерации назначается Президентом Российской Федерации с согласия Государственной Думы.]
This is what the document submitted to parliament proposes that Article 111.1 should now read:
The Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be appointed by the President of the Russian Federation after confirmation of his candidature by the State Duma. [Председатель Правительства Российской Федерации назначается Президентом Российской Федерации после утверждения его кандидатуры Государственной Думой.]
In short, the only change is that the prime minister will be appointed by the president ‘after approval’ rather than ‘with the consent’. How is that any different?? I have to say that I struggle to see the significance of the change.
The real question, then, is where this candidate for Prime Minister will come from – from the president, as now, or from the Duma? If it’s the former, then real power stays where it is. If it’s the latter, then you can genuinely start talking about ‘responsible government’. A proposed amendment to Article 111.2 provides the answer. At present the article reads:
The proposal on the candidate to the post of the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be submitted not later than two weeks after a newly-elected President of the Russian Federation takes office or after the resignation of the Government of the Russian Federation or one week after the State Duma rejects the candidate.
The amendment to Article 111.2 proposes that it should now read:
The proposal on the candidate to the post of the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation shall be submitted to the State Duma by the President of the Russian Federation [my emphasis] not later than two weeks after a newly elected President of the Russian Federation takes office or after the resignation of the Government of the Russian Federation or one week after the State Duma rejects the candidate or after the President of the Russian Federation has resigned his duties or the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation has retired.
The words that I have emphasized in the quotation above clarify the situation: the name of the candidate for prime minister will be submitted ‘to the State Duma by the President of the Russian Federation’. In other words, everything will remain as it was, only now the Duma ‘confirms’ the candidate rather than gives its ‘consent’.
Over the past week, numerous commentators have rushed into press to declare that the proposed changes to the Russian constitution are a means by which Vladimir Putin intends to maintain himself in power for perpetuity, or at least as long as any human being can. Putin’s plans were a ‘familiar playbook to extend autocratic rule’, designed to enable Putin ‘to hang onto power’, said the Los Angeles Times. ‘The proposed changes ‘are aimed at codifying Putin’s lifetime rule,’ claimed the Washington Post. They are an ‘effort to extend [Putin’s] rule in Russia’ and ‘secure his rule for life’, declared the Associated Press. And so on.
This is obvious nonsense, as you can see by putting my analysis above alongside another constitutional amendment listed in the document recently sent to the Russian parliament. This will change Article 81.3 so that instead of reading, ‘One and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms’, it will say, ‘One and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms’ – i.e. the word ‘consecutive’ will be removed.
What does all this mean? First, the proposed constitutional amendments will preserve Russia as a presidential republic. The parliament will gain some marginal new rights, but if the amendments submitted to parliament are passed in their current form, the result will not be even be a ‘responsible government’, let alone a parliamentary one. And second, if these amendments pass, Vladimir Putin won’t ever be able to be president again after 2024, as he has already served two terms. In other words, somebody else will be president, and it will be that person who will have most of the power under the terms even of the revised constitution.
This, of course, is completely incompatible with the idea that Putin is seeking to ‘secure his rule for life’. The pundits have got it all back to front. We can’t tell for sure how these changes will play out in the future, but two things now seems clear – whoever’s president after 2024 is going to be the most important person in the land, and that somebody isn’t going to be Putin.