By Andrea Chandler
On 15 January 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise announcement in his annual address to Russia’s Parliament. Following a recitation of the country’s recent successes and near-term goals, Putin devoted a sizeable portion of his speech to a plan to introduce significant changes to the Russian constitution. On its face, the proposed changes seemed to expand the role of the government and to link the government more closely to the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma. The language used by Putin suggested a proposal to strengthen the political system’s checks and balances. Debate immediately arose about the speech’s significance: was it paving the way to a greater diffusion of political power, or a path to creating an even more hierarchical system? It is difficult to evaluate Putin’s intentions until more details become apparent about the constitutional reform. But the evidence suggests that this is an effort to further concentrate presidential power and to move even further away from liberal democracy.
To provide context, let us examine the essential existing features of the Russian constitution. It was adopted in 1993, having narrowly passed a referendum during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The document is, in many respects, a very democratic constitution. The citizenry are to choose the president in elections and there is a bicameral parliament that contains elected representatives of the people as well as an upper house (the Federation Council) where regions are represented. The constitution contains an extensive list of citizen rights and a Constitutional Court that rules on the constitutionality of laws and government decisions. On its face, then, the president’s power is checked by parliament and an independent judiciary; regions and localities also have self-government bodies in what is purportedly a federal system.
If the system is so democratic, what has enabled Putin to amass so much personal power?
There are two factors at play. First, the Russian constitution gives the president extensive powers, including the power to act as ‘guarantor’ of the constitution. This makes it difficult for judicial institutions to rule against him. Secondly, the formal division of power in the constitution masks the role that political pressures and informal politics play in the system. A political party, United Russia, plays a key role in ensuring that government at all levels remains loyal to Putin. Elections in Russia are not free and fair. There is no lack of organized opposition parties, but electoral officials and laws that deter protest activity prevent oppositions from developing the capacity to compete effectively in elections.
So what, exactly, were the constitutional changes that Putin proposed? He called for the office of the Prime Minister to have a more clearly defined role and to be nominated by the Duma. This is an interesting proposal, insofar as it would make Russia closer to a semi-presidential system. But since Putin proposes that the President can still dismiss the Prime Minister at any time, this proposed reform can neither be seen as a serious boost to the Duma nor as a move to strengthen the Prime Minister’s autonomy. If in future the Duma was to become a truly independent system with a strong loyal opposition, however, this change in the Prime Minister’s selection could be significant. Another proposed reform is to require the President to consult with parliament on the ministers in charge of the ‘power ministries,’ such as the Ministry of Defence. These areas of government have been previously considered to be in the president’s domain; more consultation with parliament could have the benefit of ensuring greater accountability, particularly if such proceedings were made publicly available on the government’s website.
These reforms seem neutral. While they propose no threat to the status quo, they don’t—at least in principle—make authoritarianism more severe than it already is. More ominous, though, are other aspects of Putin’s proposed changes. Putin proposed allowing the Constitutional Court, at the president request, to examine draft legislation before it is signed into law. While he presented this proposal as a way to strengthen the courts’ powers, it appears to in fact be a proposal to weaken the legislature’s ability to override a Presidential veto of a law. In other words, the parliament’s ability to pass legislation independently of the President would be weakened. Another plan is to require individuals to reside in Russia for twenty-five years in order to establish eligibility to run for President. Such a provision would likely exclude anyone who had studied or worked in the West, or who was considered to have some sort of legal tie to another country—n other words, those who might have been exposed to liberal ideas. The proposed legislation on the constitutional change went even further making someone ineligible for the presidency if they had ever previously held citizenship in another country and to impose new limits on the eligibility to serve as members of parliament or judges. Will these proposed changes be challenged in court? One could plausibly argue that these residency requirements contradict the citizen rights guarantees of the constitution (specifically, article 32 of Section II).
In the future, we will gain a better idea of how (and indeed whether) these proposals will be carried out. The language that Putin used to present this reform was mysterious; what was left unsaid was intriguing. Putin used some language evocative of democracy: the importance of independent institutions, the need for government accountability, and the assertion that citizens should be able to vote on the changes. But Putin conspicuously avoided using the term ‘democracy.’ He referred to vague threats that provided part of the context for reform. But he did not specify, or even hint, what these threats might be. He advocated strongly for the existing constitution to be revised, not replaced. But he offered no clear rationale of why he was proposing these particular constitutional reforms at this particular time. Of course, Putin’s second term as President is due to expire in 2024. Perhaps these changes are oriented towards the post-2024 era. But Putin insisted in his speech that the President’s constitutional two-term limit should be maintained.
The proposed constitutional changes advanced quickly. On 23 January 2020, the State Duma approved in the first reading draft legislation to change the constitution. The approval process is intended to end with a referendum where Russian voters would have the opportunity to vote for or against the revisions. It is not clear why a referendum would be held, because the process for proposing the particular constitutional articles in question are to be approved not through a referendum but by at least two-thirds of Russia’s federal units’ legislatures. Perhaps a referendum is intended to simply help legitimize the approval process. But one wonders why it is being introduced, as it would likely slow down the approval process. Populist measures in the proposal, particularly the inclusion of an indexed pension and adequate minimum wage as constitutional rights, have likely been included as incentives for the Russian electorate to approve the document. Such guarantees would be fairly meaningless, though, as they are not included in the constitution’s section on citizens’ rights. Changing that section of the constitution requires a very onerous process that is not foreseen at present.
How to interpret, then, this constitutional proposal? The draft legislation offers us a hint: it quietly removes two key powers from the President: the ability to chair meetings of the Government (the domain of the Prime Minister) and the right to set the country’s military doctrine. Those two changes suggest that there may be a plan to have a figurehead President while someone else (either the Prime Minister or another yet to be finalized position) is in charge of the real seat of power. The overall tone of Putin’s speech suggested a leadership that had run out of ideas. The proposed new system seems designed to minimize risks to the existing leadership, but it is unwilling to completely dispense with the trappings of democracy. This is likely because of a lack of vision about what, precisely, would replace the existing political model.
Russia is presently at an impasse. The country’s economic growth has been flagging for some time. It has been relatively isolated on the international scene ever since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. A possibly encouraging sign is that Putin’s demeanour during his speech showed a more measured tone than some of his previous recent speeches. Overt anti-Western rhetoric was absent. So, for the time being, it seems that the Russian President’s gaze is focussed squarely on his own country.
Andrea Chandler is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. A Russia specialist by training, Chandler’s research interests include social policy, gender politics, identity, and human rights. She has published three single-authored books on Russian politics, the most recent of which is Democracy, Gender and Social Policy in Russia: a Wayward Society (Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Her publications include articles in the peer-reviewed journals Democratization, Nationalities Papers, Politics and Gender, and European Security.
 See for example Alexei Trochev and Peter H. Solomon. 2018. “Authoritarian Constitutionalism in Putin’s Russia: A Pragmatic Constitutional Court in a Dual State.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies vol. 51, no. 3, 2018, pp. 201–14.
 See Alena Ledeneva, How Russia Really Works: the Informal Practices that Shapped Post-Soviet Politics and Business Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006; Cameron Ross , “The Rise and Fall of Political Parties in Russia’s Regional Assemblies,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 63, no. 3, May 2011, 429-48.
 See for example Graeme Gill, “The Decline of a Dominant Party and the Destabilization of Electoral Authoritarianism?” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 28, no. 4, 2013, pp. 449-71.
Suggested additional reading:
Alexander Baunov, “Putin is planning a partial retirement,” Foreign Policy,17 January 2020.
Rachel Denber, “Why Legal ‘Innovation might be Bad News for Russia,” Human Rights Watch, 16 January 2020.
Timothy Frye, “Russia’s Prime Minister has Just Resigned. Putin Clearly has Plans,” Washington Post, 15 January 2020.
Mark Galeotti, “Russia’s Security Council: Where Policy, Personality and Process Meet,” George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Security Insights, no. 41, October 2019.
Yana Gorokhovskaia, “Vladimir Putin’s Naked Power Grab could have unexpected benefits,” The Guardian, 16 January 2020.
Sergei Guriev, “Putin’s Meaningless Coup,” Project Syndicate, 18 January 2020.
William E. Pomeranz, “Putin’s Cosmetic Constitutionalism,” Kennan Institute, The Russia File blog 16 January 2020.
Andreas Racz, “Putin’s Proposal to Modify the Russian Constitution,” German Council on Foreign Relations, DGAP Commentary, 23 January 2020.
Peter Roudik, “Russia: Constitutional Amendments enter into Force,” Library of Congress, Global Legal Monitor February 4, 2009.
Useful Websites for understanding Russian politics: