Russian politics keeps turning up surprises, and you have to think that some of them surprise even those at the top of the Russian power system themselves.
When Vladimir Putin proposed amendments to the Russian constitution a few weeks ago, the general reaction of the Western press was to declare the act as a ‘power grab’ and proof that Putin intended to remain in power beyond the end of his last constitutionally permitted term as president in 2024. This narrative had a number of problems. First, since the press had been telling us for years that Putin already had absolute power, it was hard to see how he could be ‘grabbing’ it. Second, once the exact wording of the proposed amendments was announced, it was obvious that far from permitting Putin to stay in office, they guaranteed the opposite. Furthermore, Putin specifically ruled out taking a job other than president, such as head of the State Council, thereby undercutting all the speculation that he was jiggling the system in such a way as to allow himself to continue to be in charge even while not being president. For a while it really did look like Putin would be well and truly gone in 2024.
In a completely unexpected development, Valentina Tereshkova, best known for having been the first woman in space but now a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, proposed to the Duma that once the new constitutional amendments come into force, the count of how many times somebody can be president be reset to zero. This would allow Putin to stand once again for president in the election of 2024, and to serve two more terms as far as 2036.
Tereshkova’s proposal seems to have taken the Duma completely by surprise. Worse, nobody knew what to do with it. The idea hadn’t come from the Kremlin – at least not directly – but deputies couldn’t be certain that Tereshkova wasn’t acting as a conduit for Putin, and they didn’t want to vote her idea down just in case she was. What to do? The answer was temporary paralysis, as the Duma tried to find out what Putin really thought, a problem which was resolved only by an emergency meeting attended by the president himself, who turned up at the Duma a short while after Tereshkova made her proposal to make an unscheduled speech. In this, Putin said ,
The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president … In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition – if the Constitutional Court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the Constitution.
In short, Putin gave his consent to the idea, subject to a ruling from the Constitutional Court.
Was this Putin’s aim all along? Did he put Tereshkova up to it? Or was he as blindsided by her proposal as everybody else? It’s not clear. If he’d wanted this, it would have been simpler just to include it in the original amendments. On the other hand, it arguably looks better if it appears to come as a result of some sort of demand from below, especially when voiced by somebody like Tereshkova who has something of a heroic status. But then again, that status means that she has some independent moral authority and doesn’t have to do whatever the Kremlin asks her. So maybe it was her idea after all, and she was acting on her own. In that case, though, why didn’t Putin reject it?
It’s next to impossible to know what’s actually going on here. For the past few weeks, Putin’s been sending strong signals that he really does plan to leave in 2024. So this is quite a reversal. The cynic in me imagines that in a political system as tightly controlled as Russia’s, today’s events can’t have been a surprise to the president. But the way it happened – the temporary paralysis in the Duma, and Putin’s sudden, unscheduled speech – suggest something rather more spontaneous. I pronounce myself flummoxed.
Of course, this doesn’t mean for certain that Putin will stay on as president post-2024. It’s possible that even if permitted to stand again, he’ll decide not to. Nor does it mean, as the Daily Telegraph immediately announced, that Putin would now be president ‘for life’. But it certainly opens up the possibility that he’ll be hanging around in power for a lot longer yet. Having said that the proposed amendments precluded that (as indeed they did before today), I find myself once again contemplating the wisdom of avoiding making firm predictions while engaging in punditry. What’s going to happen next? I don’t know. All we can do is sit back and see how things unfold.