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Russia speeds through Putin's constitutional changes

Emily Sherwin Moscow
January 23, 2020

Last week, Vladimir Putin proposed sweeping changes to Russia's constitution. Now the parliament has voted in favor of the new measures. Analysts called the fast-moving events in Russia a "sting operation."

Russia's President Vladimir Putin after delivering an annual address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Tass/M. Metzel

It's only been a week since Russia's president addressed the country in his State of the Nation speech. He proposed a range of constitutional changes, which analysts agree could pave the way for Vladimir Putin's own political future, since the Russian leader cannot serve a third consecutive term as president under the current rules.

The constitutional changes broaden the powers of both houses of parliament and could weaken the role of the president. The State Council, an advisory body made up of regional leaders and governors, will also be included in the constitution, though it is unclear what function it will have.

Putin said in his speech that there should be "the broadest possible public discussion" of the suggested changes. He also said there should be a vote on them.

A plenary session of the State Duma, a lower house of the Russian parliament
Russia's Duma is likely to pass the draft law on constitutional changes Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Novoderezhkin

But since Putin made the proposals on January 15, a working group on the constitutional amendments has already made suggestions to the president, who immediately put a draft law on the changes to the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. The Duma voted in favor of the draft law on Thursday, and will likely pass the measures in a second reading in February. 

Read more: Putin's promises, 20 years on: A fact check

When Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was asked about the "rush" surrounding the constitutional changes this week, he said the president's initiatives are always a priority. Though he couldn't specify when all the amendments would be passed, he said that "we obviously won't be putting them on the back burner."

A done deal?

With speed of the essence, it turns out many of the changes had already been written up by Putin's administration even before he announced them in his speech.

The working group whose recommendations have gone into the draft law being put to parliament admitted this week that they were merely "polishing the phrasing" and further "developing the main lines set out by the president."

Independent political scientist Abbas Gallyamov told DW that ultimately the "Kremlin prepared the suggestions itself and won't allow anyone to change them."

Alexander Pozhalov, director of research at the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research, a Russian think tank, agrees. He points out that the Duma will probably only be able to push for small "individual modifications within the announced changes."

Power to the people?

According to media reports, the Kremlin is considering scheduling a public vote on the constitutional amendments as early as April.

Caricature of Vladimir Putin riding a galloping horse that reads "Amendments to the constitution"
"Amendments to the constitution" — Russian caricaturist Sergey Elkin's view of Putin's changes

But in Abbas Gallyamov's view, the planned vote on the measures is mainly for show. It is supposed to give the public a sense of ownership of Putin's quick-fix changes without giving voters a real role in shaping the political process. Gallyamov says people currently have a strong demand for "participation in political decision-making processes. And the Kremlin is trying to satisfy [that demand]."

According to a survey by the government pollster FOM, at the end of last year, 68% of Russians were in favor of a change in the constitution, which many said they believed needs to be kept up to date.

Why the rush?

In the Russian media, Putin's current constitutional overhaul has repeatedly been called a "sting operation." According to Russian analysts, the sense of urgency could be a sign of fear in the Kremlin.

Putin may have called for a broad discussion of the constitutional amendments but his administration "urgently" wants to put a lid on that talk, Gallyamov explains, because people's own "[enthusiastic] suggestions" could "blast the whole system to pieces."

Gallyamov notes that Putin first came to power in the late 1990s and remembers the "mistakes of his predecessors well." He pointed to the example of the perestroika, a broad program of political and economic reforms and liberalizations introduced in the late 1980s, which some people argue ultimately led to the dissolution of the USSR.

But the Kremlin may also be acting quickly to prevent Russia's ruling elites from getting any funny ideas, according to political analyst Alexander Pozhalov. Putin's proposals inevitably create cracks in the system and various political groups could try to push for more power in a new order. "The longer the changes are up for discussion, the more likely it is that there could be pressure on the president or internal conflicts in an attempt to alter or block [the changes]," he told DW.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on screen as he delivers his annual state of the nation address to the Federal Assembly
Vladimir Putin cannot be president for a third consecutive term according to the constitutionImage: Reuters/M. Shemetov

What about Putin?

The Kremlin is pushing for change while attempting to keep a firm grip on the situation. According to the constitution, Putin cannot be president for a third consecutive term in 2024.

In 2008, he got around the rule by becoming prime minister for a term, and then returning to the presidency in 2012. Analysts say this time he could remain in power as the head of the State Council. The regional advisory body is now being included in the constitution, and its role could be expanded. There has also been some discussion in the Russian media of Putin taking on a role in a strengthened parliament or in Russia's Security Council. He could also become prime minister again.

According to Pozhalov, Putin will definitely serve out his current presidential term, which will give him time to "personally evaluate" how his constitutional changes play out in practice and "correct them" if necessary.

When it comes to the future, Pozhalov believes Putin is keeping his options open. "Rushing is good, but there is no point in narrowing down your range of options too early."