What Putin’s New Constitution Means for Russia and the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a video call with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo AP

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a video call with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A series of constitutional amendments will cement Putin’s hold on power, change Russian life, and give the West fewer options for dealing with him.

Russians will vote on a series of constitutional amendments on Wednesday that would allow Vladimir Putin, whose approval rating has lately been collapsing, to stay in power until 2036.

The new laws would also give the president more authority to set Russia’s foreign policy agenda, extend his power into local affairs, help him block potential political challengers, and allow him to select candidates for ministerial posts — the latter, considered to be a swipe at Russia’s legislative assembly, the Duma. 

The referendum will be an up-or-down vote on 206 amendments rolled into a single package. New versions of the constitution with the amendments in place are already on sale in bookstores.

“Many of the amendments are basically populist slogans,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, an anti-Putin activist, said during a recent broadcast. “It’s not clear what this will mean in terms of implementation and practice,”

They include statements such as the minimum wage should match living standards and people should be able to access healthcare.

A yes vote would enshrine several changes to the office of the president and the process of elections. While the president is the country’s most powerful politician, Russia is still technically a federation with regional centers of authority that operate under Moscow’s central government. Russian dissidents sometimes call it a “managed’ or “guided” democracy.  

Putin, who would have to leave office in 2024 without the proposed changes, has been dissolving checks-and-balances against him since 2003, when he closed TVS, an independent TV channel and ordered the arrest of his primary political opponent, Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky. Russian parliamentary elections have since been increasingly corrupt, according to international observers.

“In a European country, in the 21st century, one man wants to stay in power for 36 years. That is the real reason for all of these shenanigans,” said Kara-Murza.

The referendum could also affect how Washington deals with Moscow. One amendment gives Russian leaders the option to ignore decisions and rulings from international bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights, according to Maria Snegovaya, a fellow with the Center for European Analysis. That will make it harder for the United States and allies to use international bodies to pressure the Russian government to adhere to international law. 

The new amendments also will result in “even less federalism” in Russia, she said. Putin will have additional powers to not just appoint judges to the Constitutional Court but also throw them out, and oversee [local] appointments of regional prosecutors and gain more control over municipal governance. 

Snegovaya briefed congressional staffers privately on the referendum on Monday.

Russia’s referendum also notably bans from running for office those individuals who have spent a significant amount of time abroad as a dual resident or a permanent resident of another country or who hold money in foreign bank accounts. That could mean that some of the most reform-minded members of Russian society, particularly young people who have seen effective democracies in action elsewhere, won’t be able to enter Russian politics. 

“People who have experience living abroad with other cultures, they are typically much more politically active. That’s because they’ve had different experiences and are trying to change Russia accordingly,” Snegovaya said. The effect of the amendment will be “to insulate the political system even more.”

The referendum comes at a time when Putin is more unpopular than ever, even in unreliable Russian polls.

“Elections would be a particular problem, since there are only so many votes that you can falsify. You can’t falsify everything especially in the cities where they have established a relatively good monitoring system.”  

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