January 17, 2020

Putin’s Latest Surprise


The Russian president’s annual address to the Federal Assembly is normally the most important official event of the year. This year, President Vladimir Putin upheld that tradition. He also upheld a second Russian (and Soviet) tradition: concealing his purpose until the end. Then he turned the tables – twice.

First, he has proposed ‘drastic changes to the political system’ to be introduced by constitutional amendment and confirmed by referendum. What changes? As is characteristic of Putin, his proposals are both fragmentary and laced with enigmas. On the one hand, Parliament’s role must be strengthened and the President’s prerogatives to appoint the Cabinet diminished. Yet ‘Russia must remain a strong presidential republic’, and the President must ‘exercise direct command over the Armed Forces and the entire law enforcement system… [and] appoint heads of all security agencies’. Nevertheless, the principle of ‘rotation’ must prevail and the two-term presidential limit upheld. At the same time, Russia requires a ‘reliable and invulnerable system that will be absolutely stable… at the same time… organic, flexible and capable of changing quickly’.

How are these pieces supposed to fit together? The most likely way would be through the creation of a new structure (or the enhancement of an existing one) and the establishment of a new position of authority. Read the speech carefully, and you will see that this is likely to be the State Council (‘restored in 2000 at my initiative’) whose new head could well turn out to be Russia’s current president. This was exactly the solution adopted by Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and it bears a close affinity to that chosen by Deng Xiaoping, who was hardly a secondary figure in the governance of China.

Here, Putin’s purpose has been known for some time: to find an algorithm that will preserve his authority, de facto and de jure after 2024 without violating Russia’s widely invoked and much abused system of laws. Change the law, and there is no need to violate it. In view of the fact that Putin’s preferred solution – creation of a unified and empowered Union State with Belarus – has been blocked by Alyaksandr Lukashenka, constitutional machinations at home are the least unattractive alternative.

With the prompt resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his entire Cabinet, it is clear that reshuffling of the deck will proceed well before the constitutional ‘working group’ reports and the promised referendum takes place. Medvedev, loyal from the creation and to eternity, has long ago worn out his usefulness. His replacement, Mikhail Vladimirovich Mishustin, former Head of the Federal Tax Service, highly competent and ‘friendly’ to state business interests, is both a new broom and a ‘safe pair of hands’.

But there was a second surprise in Putin’s address, and it is more ominous.

‘The requirements of international law and treaties as well as decisions of international bodies can be valid on the Russian territory only to the point that they… do not contradict our Constitution.’

The principle that ‘our nation’s sovereignty must be unconditional’ is not a new one. Neither is Russia’s violation of international law in practice. But with this address, it becomes a matter of principle, and when the constitutional amendments are adopted, it will also become a matter of law. For Ukraine, this has the most immediate relevance, and the appointment of Zakhar Prelypin (writer, musician, fundraiser and leader of a ‘humanitarian convoy’ to ‘Novorossiya’) to the ‘working group’ on constitutional amendments underscores the point. In the judgement of Ukraine’s veteran commentator, Vitaliy Portnikov, Putin’s changes amount to a ‘declaration of war’ against Ukraine. But Russia has been waging war there since 2014, and its key international obligations, notably the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, were long ago repudiated.

The more serious implications lie elsewhere. A country that subjects itself to international law only when its own domestic laws permit is no subject of international law at all. Some will claim that Russia is not exceptional in this regard. But to turn ‘pragmatic’ violations of law into a principle is exceptional, and by crossing this line, Putin has once again drawn a line between Russia and Europe.

The article was published in the Estonian daily newspaper Postimees on 17 January 2020.