Is Russian President Vladimir Putin a megalomaniac? The reaction of the commentatori to the huge changes in Russia’s political DNA suggested by the president was kneejerk and entirely predictable.
The Express went with “Putin’s naked power grab.” Bloomberg had “Putin the Puppet Master Shows He Still Has the Power to Shock”. And that was despite the fact that Putin’s suggestions result in moving power back into the Duma where it belongs and that he will voluntarily give up at least some of his power.
Just how much power he will retain and how of course is a key question. Whatever just happened, a transformation of Russia from a presidential republic to a parliamentary democracy was not one of them. Still, Putin’s decision to give up some of his power is unprecedented, but the western narrative is so invested in its demonisation of Putin it has become a crude reduction portraying everything in terms of Putin’s person.
In “Putin’s Russia” the Russia part is missing. Everything Putin does is exclusively for Putin’s personal benefit and there can be no other explanation. The possibility that Putin is genuinely concerned about Russia and acting in the interests of the Russian people as he tries to rebuild the country after its total collapse in 1991 is simply discarded.
In Putin’s Russia, Putin is a megalomaniac whose every action is designed to increase his power and earn him more wealth.
This description actually fits all the leaders of the CIS well. Almost all of them have changed the constitution to make themselves de facto leaders for life. Almost all of them have some sort of personality cult. Almost all of them are demonstrably wealthy. And clearly almost all of them believe they are the only one able to steer their countries through this difficult period. None of this is true of Putin except the last point: clearly Putin believes he is the only one capable of rebuilding Russia.
However, unlike the accession countries of Central Europe that embraced EU-style liberalism, Putin has gone in the opposition direction. He explained his plan right back at the start of his first term in office in a little noticed speech. He said that Mikhail Gorbachev’s mistake in perestroika was to do the political reforms first and leave the economics for later. The situation quickly ran out of control and rapidly led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin has reversed this thinking: do the economic reforms first and the politics later.
Tenuous grip on power
“Putin’s Russia” implies that Putin has total control of Russia, whereas digging into the voting data shows that while he has a firm grip on power, he has a tenuous grip on total control.
Putin’s sky-high personal popularity makes him impervious to a palace coup. In the elections the most important constituency is not the people but the elite and while Putin would walk to victory even in free and open elections, the actual elections are fixed as he needs to win by a wide margin to assure the elite he is in full control.
His hold over the Duma is based on the vote of United Russia and he exercises it via his proxy, former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.
But Putin’s grip on the Duma has been slipping in recent years. The fix in the 2011 Duma elections was so blatant that it resulted in 100,000-strong street protests. In that that election, despite the addition of an estimated 11% to United Russia’s tally, two thirds of the regions voted less than 50% for United Russia and one third voted less than 40%. United Russia’s continued majority depended entirely on the vote in eight regions, including Chechnya and Tatarstan, that delivered over 80% of the vote for United Russia (and more in some cases).
Since then United Russia has become even more unpopular, as is the whole government. United Russia’s electoral rating dropped to a new low of 33.8% in January 2019 and the substantial fix that is now necessary to allow it to take over 50% of the vote will almost certainly lead to popular unrest. Even Putin acknowledged this in his state of the nation speech on January 15 saying the people were becoming more “politically mature”.
This must be one of the main reasons why he is moving more power to the Duma and presumably intends to allow more parties to run as a way of increasing the appeal of the government as he can’t rely on United Russia alone as his proxy in government any more.
Interestingly while both the government and United Russia are increasingly unpopular, Russia’s regional governors have seen their popularity soar in the last year. During the last elections Putin turned to the regional governors to deliver the votes he needed to get both himself and United Russia re-elected and the associated largess has stuck to the regional governors as a result.
The regional governors saw their approval tick up 2pp in September to 63%, which is now on a par with Putin’s own popularity. Putin is now widely expected to move sideways to the State Council, which is made up of governors, and gives him a solid base to continue to control the country.
Instead of acting through regional Duma deputies, the governors give Putin a tool to directly act in every region of Russia. In this sense Medvedev’s appointment to the newly created role of vice-president of the State Council, which will also see its powers increased, is continuation of the Putin-Medvedev double act that has been the staple of Russian politics for almost two decades.
Another part of the narrative is that Putin is constantly on the cusp of changing the constitution to nix the two-term rule and make himself president for life.
In fact Putin has marked himself out as a legalist, who has stuck to the word of the constitution and constantly lambasts the west for their double standards in ignoring international law. Sometimes this fixation on constitutional change reaches ridiculous extremes. On the eve of the presidential vote in 2008 when Putin stepped down, a flash report from the newswires said: “Putin on his way to [Russian TV centre]. Possible constitutional change could be announced.” All he did was go on telly to cajole Russians to go out and vote.
Changing the constitution to nix the two-term rule is becoming more and more difficult. By stepping down in 2008 and keeping to the terms of the constitution Putin only made it stronger. If he were to try to change it now the upshot would probably be large scale public demonstrations. The polls say that the Russian people like and admire Putin, but they also show they are ready for a change and want a new president after Putin’s term is up.
And putting the proposed constitution changes to a referendum – the first in 23 years – will only strengthen the constitution’s authority again. Indeed, because of the mood in the country he has to put the changes to a referendum. If he simply put it to the Duma and used his power there to railroad the changes through that too could spark unrest. A recent poll found that Russians feel increasingly disconnected from government. These changes and a referendum is an opportunity for the Kremlin to reconnect with the the increasingly demanding population. And it is almost certain that the population will support the changes as they want to see an end to the politics of stagnation and it is a simple matter to sell these changes as a “fresh start”.
If the changes have a popular mandate then it makes it even more difficult for any subsequent leader to change the constitution back without sparking popular unrest. A referendum on Putin’s changes should lock the new system he is creating in place.
What is his motivation?
The reshuffle is not about creating a mechanism for Putin to stay in power, although it does include a role for him to stay on in a caretaker capacity.
The changes are designed to allow him to step back from power, but at the same time to protect his legacy and ensure the system doesn't implode.
The irony here is he has built a system where all the power accrued to the president but now has to undo this by building solid institutions that will outlast him.
Putin himself made those institutions weak as a central plank of his control system. The very weakness of Medvedev as prime minister gave the Kremlin full control over the running of government.
Putin is now trying to turn that system on its head, but has built into this system a place in the State Council (or similar leverage point) where he can oversee the change as a caretaker to make sure this transition doesn't go wrong.
This is a huge task and will take time, which is one of the reasons that he launched the whole programme in 2020 as it gives him four years to manage the process. If he truly wanted to remain in charge, as president of in some other role, then it would have made more sense to wait until 2024 to spring whatever scheme on the people as a fait accompli.
Putin is not a megalomaniac. His overriding motivation is to make Russia great again and at the same time he is tired of the job. Despite the total control Putin has over the system in recent years he has increasing removed himself from the day to day running of the country, increasingly leaving the management of the economy to the liberal camp, headed by former finance minister and Audit Chamber head Alexei Kudrin, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, Minister of Economy Maxim Oreshkin and CBR governor Elvira Nabiullina.
Putin only gets involved in the mega-state-funded projects such as the Kerch bridge to the Crimea, the Power of Siberia gas pipeline to China as well as leading the foreign policy drive in Ukraine, Syria and now Libya.
“He really is tired and he really does want to leave. He is not someone who enjoys power for power’s sake, but at this point rules because he thinks things would collapse without him, or because he, his friends or his family would not be safe,” tweeted Anna Arutunyan, senior Russian analyst with the Crisis Group.
The changes to the constitution won’t make Russia more democratic as the power remains with the elite. That is part of the problem. Even after 20 years Putin clearly still doesn't think Russia is ready for those political reforms, even if moving power back into the Duma is a step in the democratic direction.
He also doesn't trust his colleagues, which is why he has made a cubbyhole of power that can reach down onto the ground in every region of the country from which he can oversee the process.
“Putin prizes order, efficiency, and institutional rule. His patronage of Medvedev’s anti-corruption and modernisation campaign during the placeholder presidency of 2008-2012, however half-hearted, is testament to that,” Arutunyan said.
And the rise of the liberal fraction is also a testimony to that. They are now fully in charge of economic policy and implementation, to the point where the Ministry of Finance successfully forced Gazprom and Rosneft – the two most power state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in Russia – to increase their dividend payments to 50%, despite determined opposition by the incumbent management.
The appointment of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has only increased the power of the liberal faction as Mishustin belongs to this crowd: apolitical, modest, a driven technocrat, a highly efficient administrator, financially savvy and, above all else, honest, according those that have worked with him.
Mishustin is a manger, who has been put in charge with a job to do: make the national projects work. He stands in total contrast to Medvedev, who was a Putin puppet there to give Putin direct control of the Duma by proxy.
The bottom line is Putin wants it both ways: he wants to dilute the power of the presidency so the whole succession issue of 2024 is less of an issue; and he wants to stay in charge, not because he wants to stay in charge, but he doesn't believe the system is ready to run on its own without someone overseeing it.
And he is probably right about the latter point. And he is also to blame for the system’s inability to function on its own as he is responsible for keeping the institutions weak, for concentrating so much power in his own hands and for running the country on the basis of the bureaucrat-client relations where corruption is the system, as bne IntelliNews has previously argued.
The new system Putin is proposing is not a democratic one, but it is a step away from the authoritarian rule where the president is in full control of all the real power. It is an extension of the “managed sovereignty” that has been a theme of his tenure, but it also creates a mechanism for a smoother move towards a democratic Russia by increasingly freeing new parties in the Duma to have real debates and become increasingly accountable to the public.