World, Analysis

ANALYSIS - Lifetime presidency for Putin

Next 15 years of Russia to be under 'one-man rule', in line with a 'mastermind' plan

Irfan Kaya Ulger   | 25.03.2020
ANALYSIS - Lifetime presidency for Putin

ISTANBUL

The introduction to renowned French political scientist Maurice Duverger's Republican Monarchy stresses the authorities of a politician chosen by the vote of the people. Duverger is of the view that number one is the “first among equals” and says “the political regimes of the U.S., Great Britain, and France are very different from each other: a presidential regime in Washington, a parliamentary regime in London, and a mixed regime in Paris. But behind the diversity of these constitutional appearances, the same fundamental truth brings them closer: the pulse of all three regimes throws "in an elected ruler", and the parliament carries the only duty of "balancing".

We have no way of knowing what Duverger would think of Putin, whose constitution has been amended to make him the president for another 12 years from the end of his term. If he were alive these days, he could probably also make a definition for Putin's “eternal presidency”. Because within the Russian political system, Vladimir Putin's situation reflects a de facto situation far beyond the examples listed above.

Putin to keep being president until 2036

Putin, a former KGB officer, was elected the president twice in a row, in 2000 and 2004, according to the Russian constitution of 1993. Dmitriy Medvedev was elected to this post in the period 2008-2012, as the constitution prohibit the same person from serving for the third time, while Putin assumed the post of prime minister. After a constitutional amendment, the president's term of office was raised to six years. Putin was re-nominated in 2012, and then won the elections in 2018. In the usual circumstances, Putin's mandate is supposed to expire in 2024. But changes to the Russian constitution in January 2020 have paved the way for Putin to take the presidency in a new era. The draft constitutional amendment was approved both in the Federal Council, the upper wing of the Russian parliament and in the Duma, its lower wing. The constitutional amendment bill is expected to be submitted to a popular vote on April 22.

According to a review by Russia's Constitutional Court, the new amendment creates a new situation. The court gave the green light to Putin to run for the presidency again after the constitutional change. To further clarify, the constitutional amendment was essentially put on the agenda to allow Putin to continue his presidency after 2024. Once the amendment is finalized, Putin's participation in the election will be evaluated in the “first-time candidate” category. According to the court, the constitutional amendment introduced a new situation. If he wants to be a candidate, Putin will be considered the first-time applicant under the constitutional provisions following the amendment. The court adopted this interpretation on the application of Federal Council member Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut to go into space. Tereshkova interpreted Putin's pre-participation in the presidential election as not contrary to the rule that “one person cannot be elected president twice in a row". According to Tereshkova, the past will not be taken into account once the constitutional changes enter into force. So if he reapplies, Putin will be accepted as a candidate for the first time. The Supreme Court announced last week that it accepted that interpretation.

The bill was also passed by the Federal Council and the Duma last week. The Federal Council consists of 170 members from the federal units of Russia, but the Duma, whose members are directly elected, has 450 members. The draft constitutional amendment must also be adopted in a referendum on April 22 to be valid. The constitutional amendment gives Putin the possibility to remain in office as the president of the Russian Federation until 2036. Putin, who is expected to rule Russia for another 16 years after the change, is now 67. The only thing that will prevent him from now on, however, will be health problems he might face during his advanced ages.

The constitutional change in Russia means strengthening Putin's “monopoly of power”. Last week, the opposition raised its voice, albeit rickety, against the amendment. Some 350 lawyers described the proposal for a constitutional amendment as an “anti-constitutional coup”. These views were advocated by jurists and were moved to the public spotlight by a statement read on the radio called “the Echo of Moscow”. Lawyers argue that the will of the people has been usurped. Around 40 demonstrators who gathered in Moscow last week to protest the constitutional amendment were detained by police and questioned by the Russian Federal Security Service.

What is in constitutional amendment bill?

Putin proposed a draft constitutional amendment on Jan. 15. The most important item in the draft -- prepared by a working group of 75 people who came together just for this purpose -- is organizing the presidential elections. Under the new bill, a presidential candidate could be elected to the post at most twice. The current constitution states that the presidential candidate's term of office was “at most twice in a row.” The new bill also introduces a rule that a presidential candidate must have lived in the Russian Federation for 25 years. In the current constitution, the requirement is “living in the Russian Federation for 10 years.” According to the Constitutional Court's interpretation, if Putin, who still holds the presidency, wants to run after the constitutional amendment, the old situation will not be taken into account and the new amendment will be adopted. In other words, Putin's nomination after the constitutional amendment will be considered as his very first application for presidency.

Another point to note in the draft constitutional amendment is the expansion of the powers of the Duma. Under this, the president will have to appoint prime ministers and ministers who receive a vote of confidence from the Duma. At first glance, this amendment gives the impression that the legislature will expand its powers with regard to the executive, but there is no change in the president's powers of impeachment and discretion. So the president can dismiss the prime minister or a minister if he/she wants to. Also, the draft constitutional amendment stipulates that prime ministers, ministers, heads of federal state bodies, governors, senators, deputies, and judges serving in the Russian Federation cannot be citizens of another country other than Russia.

Another amendment -- which could lead to a question of the existence of democracy and rule of law in Russia -- suggests that national laws has precedence over international agreements. To give an example, the Russian Federation, a member of the Council of Europe, is going to give priority to its national laws, not to the provisions of the convention, if the European Convention on Human Rights contradicts with its national laws. That clause is expected to further accelerate Russia's move away from the West.

The constitutional amendment also regulates how to set the minimum wage. According to this, the minimum wage in Russia will not be lower than the minimum level of subsistence which will also be considered when determining the salaries of the retired. The reason why Putin, who is about to run for the presidency again, has brought this change to the agenda is clear: to get votes from minimum wage workers and the retired.

The bill also describes marriage as the approval of a union of the male and female sexes by law. So it suggests that same-sex marriages are legally invalid. This is an example indicating that the rulers approve the Russian Orthodox Church's interpretations and assessments.

Russian democratic experience severely narrow

A referendum on the constitutional change in Russia is going to be held on April 22 if it is not postponed at the last moment due to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The public sees the bill as “extending Putin's mandate,” and the outcome is expected to be positive. What this means is clear: the next 15 years of Russia will be under a "one-man rule" in line with a "mastermind plan". Despite a democratic image, Putin's monopoly on decision-making on all matters as an “eternal leader" will continue. The average Russian citizen does not feel uncomfortable with this situation because the experience of “multiparty democracy” in Russia's political culture is extremely limited. What happened in the country from the beginning of the 1990s until today should be considered the “derivative of democracy” practices. Indeed, for the Russians, a whole 20th century has been under the totalitarian rule. Following the fall of Tsardom, the Communist Party ruled the country from 1917 to 1991. During this period, when totalitarianism prevailed, all dissenting political movements and religious activities were banned. ”The Communist Party's monopoly of power and leading role" was considered essential.

The closest period to democracy in Russian political history was undoubtedly the 1990s when Boris Yeltsin was in power. During this period, political participation reached its highest level, while relief and reconstruction activities continued in the aftermath of the U.S.S.R. All kinds of political parties were allowed to organize and propagandize. In the post-Yeltsin era, however, subtle scenarios were put into practice by KGB design, which featured Putin as the “one-man.” At the end of 1999, when Yeltsin left his post due to health reasons, Putin, as a technocrat, was declared interim president. His mission was to lead the country until the elections. But with intense media propaganda, during this period, Putin was imposed on the public as a “leader with superior qualities”. Shortly after, he joined the presidential race and was elected the president in March 2000. Putin has been the sole decision-maker of the Russian Federation since then. Newspapers, radios, other mass media have been leading the public, ceaselessly recounting Putin's achievements and heroics. The latest constitutional amendment effort should not be taken apart from this framework. Putin is a design of Russia's “deep state” and his mission is to put into practice the official strategy document of the Eurasian school.

Churches, political parties also support Eurasia movement

From another perspective, what has happened in the Russian Federation from the beginning of the 21st century until today is a joint activity of Eurasians, those living with the dream of “Tsarist Russia” and the Russian Orthodox Church. Indeed, when the U.S.S.R. disbanded in 1991, there were two main political currents in this country. The first of these, the school of Atlanticism, argued that Russia was fundamentally European, adopted Western values and should have good relations with the West. On the other hand, Eurasian school also had the support of Slavic nationalists who wanted to revive the dream of Tsarist Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church and even the Communist Party also sided with this school.

The Atlanticists began to gradually lose power during the second term of Yeltsin's rule. Putin's appointment as interim head of state on the last day of the last month of 1999 meant that the Eurasian school would seize power. Since then, Russia has been pursuing a foreign policy based on the paradigm of the Eurasian school, both inside and outside. What is even more interesting is that the Communist Party of Russia, considered to be the main opposition party, belongs to this school and implicitly supports the Putin administration. The Liberal Democratic Party, the third party to form a group in the Duma, also belongs to the Eurasian school. The ideological discourse of the party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who speaks Turkish fluently, is in full harmony with the paradigm of the Eurasian school, with its Tsarist dreams on the one hand and its rhetoric of influence over the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on the other.

In the post-U.S.S.R. period, the Russian Orthodox Church is another institution which is raising its influence day by day inside and outside of Russia. The church, whose activities were banned during the U.S.S.R. period, has now become one of the main actors guiding the state's domestic policy, education system, defense, and foreign policy. The Russian Orthodox Church regulates the curriculum of religious education in secondary schools and military institutions. The church is also under the protection of diaspora Russians and other Orthodox nations living outside the country. Just as the Vatican is the religious center of all Catholics, the Russian Orthodox Church considers itself the main headquarters of all Orthodox Christians. So it competes with the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul.

Russia's interventions to protect the rights and interests of the Russian people living outside the country are often conducted through the Russian Orthodox Church. Attempts to protect the religious freedoms of the Orthodox can turn into political operations over time. The position of the Russian Orthodox Church in the state has gradually become stronger after communism and almost one of the main focuses of Russian foreign policy today. Although the constitution contains the provision that the state is secular and stands equal to the members of the faith, in practice, the Orthodox teaching has become the unofficial denomination of the Russian state.

As a result, the draft constitutional amendment, which is expected to be submitted to a popular vote in Russia on April 22, will likely be adopted. The door has been opened for Putin to serve two more terms as the president of Russia after 2024. The activities of independent mass media outlets in the country are (increasingly) under pressure. The “foreign agent” law, passed in 2012, prevented views in the media and non-governmental organizations that do not overlap with the official perspective. Taking all these into account, it is possible to put forward the following view: extending Putin's mandate into 2036 by amending the Russian constitution is essentially a “mastermind" plan and intends to strengthen the influence of the Eurasian school.


[The writer is the head of the International Relations Department at Kocaeli University in northwestern Turkey.]

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

* Translated by Merve Dastan in Ankara.

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