President Vladimir Putin of Russia applauds after his speech to the State Council in Moscow in which he proposed changing the Russian Constitution to increase the powers of parliament and the cabinet.Credit...Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press
On Jan. 15, it became clear to the people of Russia that they would never again have the opportunity to vote for Vladimir Putin. It also became clear that they would live with him for the foreseeable future.
In his annual State of the Nation address, Mr. Putin promised that he would step aside in 2024 when his current term expires. At the same time he outlined a series of sweeping constitutional reforms that would likely go into force this year: Russia will remain a presidential republic but future presidents will be limited to two terms in office. Parliament will have the right to appoint government ministers, including the prime minister. (Currently, they are selected by the president and approved by Parliament.) The changes will also confer additional powers to the State Council, which is now a fairly low-profile advisory body, leading many to believe that Mr. Putin imagines himself as the council’s chairman after 2024. The result is that in four years Mr. Putin can step aside and focus on running the world while his aides focus on running Russia.
Why has Russia’s powerful president chosen this route? In 2018, President Xi Jinping of China changed his country’s Constitution to allow himself to be president for life. Mr. Putin could easily have done the same, but decided against it. But Mr. Putin’s timing raises questions: Why did he present his constitutional initiative now, four years before the end of his term, in a manner that resembles a palace coup more than a political reform?
The timing and the nature of the constitutional amendments make it clear that Mr. Putin perceives his regime as in crisis and is doubtful about the continued viability of a system of personal rule when he is no longer around. He knows perfectly well that what his apologists trumpet as political stability is in reality political stagnation, and that popular support for the regime is in decay. It is quite possible that last summer’s protests in Moscow and the growing apathy of his supporters impelled the president to offer reform proposals and ask that any changes be legitimized by popular vote. It won’t come as a shock if the referendum coincides with early parliamentary elections this autumn, thus starting the power transition this year.
Unpacking Mr. Putin’s decisions, one cannot escape the sense that he is haunted by memories of the sclerotic and impotent leadership of the Soviet Union in its waning years. That period led to crime, economic decline and chaos. Russians remain scarred by it — and so Mr. Putin cannot allow his people to see themselves returning to life under a stagnating and aging elite.
Mr. Putin was right to believe that any talk about his possible successor would be an existential threat to his power. Contrary to Boris Yeltsin’s plan for power transition — widely known as “Operation Successor” — Mr. Putin’s own gambit might be best described as “Operation No Successor.” The next Russian president will not be Russia’s next leader, so society should stop being interested in who he will be.
His choice of Mikhail Mishutin as prime minister is indicative of how Mr. Putin will rearrange the new orchestra: Mr. Mishutin, who took office when Mr. Putin announced the changes, is said to be an effective manager and a capable bureaucrat, but his major quality is that nobody could imagine him as the next Putin. It is also clear that what the Kremlin aims for is modernizing governance and making it more efficient. But modernization doesn’t mean Westernization. A more digitized bureaucracy will not lead to more political competition, or even stronger rule of law. The Kremlin wants to preserve its near total control while at the same time it hopes to inject some dynamism into the economy.
Most commentators have strenuously highlighted that Mr. Putin will still remain in power after leaving the Kremlin, and are dismissive of any possible liberalizing effects of the suggested amendments. They may be right. In foreign policy, it’s unlikely that Russia will change course. Resisting the West is Mr. Putin’s definition of Russian sovereignty. But on domestic matters, the long-term consequences of the proposed changes are harder to predict. Surprising changes often have surprising consequences.
By constraining the powers of the president, empowering the Parliament, and making himself the ultimate power center beyond the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin has injected institutional competition that was not present. In doing so, he may have triggered the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle. As the esteemed Russian writer counseled young dramatists, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, in the following one it should be fired.” When rulers start cosmetic changes to prevent real change, they should be aware that there are no guarantees things will not actually change.
Ivan Krastev is a contributing opinion writer, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the author, most recently, of “The Light That Failed: A Reckoning,” with Stephen Holmes.
Depopulation is eastern Europe’s biggest problem
There is a connection between the twin crises of democracy and demography
When western European political leaders meet their central and eastern European counterparts, all they want to discuss is the crisis of democracy and the erosion of the rule of law. The priority for the latter, however, is the demographic crisis and the depopulation of their countries. Andrej Plenkovic, the prime minister of Croatia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, defined depopulation as Europe’s “existential problem” in his recent meeting with the new European Council president, Charles Michel. But might there be a connection between the twin crises of democracy and demography? Rather than viewing rising illiberalism in central and eastern Europe as the inevitable return of atavistic nationalism and authoritarianism, it might instead be understood as something new: an attempt to preserve the power of shrinking ethnocultural majorities in the face of population decline and increased migration. The UN estimates that, since the 1990s, the nations of Europe’s east have lost about 6 per cent of their collective population, or about 18m people. In 1939, almost a third of Poland’s inhabitants were something other than ethnic Poles (there were substantial German, Jewish, Ukrainian, and other minorities). Today, ethnic Poles account for more than 95 per cent of Polish citizens. But in this century, those trends have begun to reverse. What the political historian Joseph Rothschild calls a “return to diversity” has become increasingly apparent. To manage this “diversification”, central and eastern European societies will need to unlearn what many of them still see as the 20th century’s biggest lesson — that ethnic and cultural diversity is less an advantage and more of a security threat. In a democracy, numbers matter. When they change, political power often changes as well. Central and eastern Europe has witnessed a version of this phenomenon. Millions of people have moved away, mostly to the west, and liberal political forces have seen their influence drop considerably as a consequence, since large numbers of their voters are among those who have chosen to leave. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the new illiberalism is not premised on a policy pledge to keep borders tightly closed. For example, in 2017, Poland, whose government vehemently opposes Brussels’ refugee policies, issued more visas to foreign migrant workers than any other EU member state. Illiberalism, rather, promises sovereign control over who gets to participate in politics — it reserves the right to distinguish, within countries, between citizens and non-citizens. Foreigners are free to come and work, but they will never be allowed to have any fundamental say in the political process. This is a version, albeit less dramatic in size and scope, of the way the Gulf states treat migrant workers. All are welcome to work, but not to enjoy the benefits of citizenship.
There is obviously a cost to preserving the power of the ethnic majority in diversifying societies. The establishment of a two-tier society, and the resentment it inevitably provokes, is the most obvious consequence. The emergence of a disenfranchised youth is a further, less-obvious outcome. At present, young people constitute a relatively small cohort in central and eastern Europe. Low birth rates and high rates of emigration have seen to that. This creates a risk that older generations, over-represented in the political system, and who rightly see themselves as the biggest victims of the post-communist transition (with their low pensions and disrupted careers), will block investments in the future. This could trigger a further exodus of young people. Governments face a dilemma, therefore: how to persuade older citizens to sacrifice for their country’s future, even if they suspect that their children or grandchildren will be living elsewhere.Shutting immigrants out of the political process could, in the space of a few decades, produce a situation in which most working people lack the right to vote, while most voters are retired. In order for such a system to work, either democracy will lose its importance or the regime will become less democratic. In 1953, following the violent suppression of anti-communist protests in East Berlin, Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem called “The Solution”, in which he sardonically asked whether it would not be “easier” for the rulers “to dissolve the people and elect another”. For today’s illiberal political leaders, Europe is facing its Brechtian moment.
The writer is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna