With his hand on a gold-embossed copy of the Russian constitution, Putin was sworn in for the fourth time in 2018, when he promised to serve the Russian people faithfully. Today, he is trying to alter and shape that same constitution to suit his own interests and cement his power, possibly in perpetuity. Putin has backed a proposal by a member of Russia’s ruling party to amend the constitution in a way that in effect “resets” Putin’s presidential term count back to zero.
Russia’s constitution determines that a person can serve as president for two consecutive six-year terms. However, whilst the constitution forbids more than two consecutive terms, it says nothing about subsequent terms in office. Putin ruled as acting President in 1999 and then was officially elected and inaugurated in 2000 and served until 2008, before swapping jobs with his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, handing the office of the presidency to his successor as a king would to his heir. During his four-year break from the presidency, he remained Russia’s most powerful politician before returning to the Kremlin in 2012. There is really nothing stopping Putin pulling this trick again, theoretically he could take another six-year break from 2024 to 2030, at which point he would be 77, and then serve an additional 12 years in office. However not content with ruling until the age of 99 after a short interval, Putin has clearly determined this waiting period to be too risky. If he is not in office, he cannot guarantee his re-election in quite the same manner as we saw in 2018 with the video of a poll worker stuffing the ballot boxes. He cannot guarantee that whoever steps in to fill those six years will not utilise the extended powers he has ensured the presidency has and the strict state media to cement their own reign.
The Russian president is currently required by the constitution to step down in 2024, and for months there has been conjecture about how he would try to remain in power beyond this time, or to at least ensure a safe transition for himself that will guarantee that he will never be prosecuted for any of his actions as president. It seems that the resolution to this puzzle lies in Putin staying on as president until 2036. Following the proposal in Parliament, Putin stated the move would have to be approved by the public in a referendum in April, although this has now been delayed indefinitely due to the continuing spread of Covid-19. In truth, Putin could probably push this amendment easily through parliament and few people would, or could, object to it. These measures are more to protect himself from international scrutiny than anything else and legitimise his continued rule.
Whilst the president has been signalling publicly for months now that he could leave the presidency, by stating he was worried about a return to the 80s. At this time Kremlin leaders “stayed in power until the end of their days” and did not provide for a transition of power, however, despite his comments Putin’s recent move is hardly surprising. Ironically the amendment piggybacks on plans to change the constitution to prevent anyone from serving more than two terms as president in total, although if Putin is successfully re-elected once more there is no saying how the constitution will continue to be shaped and changed in his interests. Should this constitutional amendment pass, there seems only two likely paths for Russia’s future. Either Putin will continue to alter the constitution to ensure his continued grasp on power through the presidency, or he will protect his interests by essentially placing a puppet in his place, handing down the mantle in 2036 to an ally so loyal he will stay protected by the office of the presidency in de facto. Either way, whether it is Putin at the helm or one of his cronies, it is unlikely there will be a change in Russia’s ruling party for the foreseeable future. Russia will creep forward into dictatorship without even noticing.
All democratic nations should beware, and look to Russia as a warning. One of the biggest issues in regards to the lack of accountability within so-called democratic states, is the lack of a robust, questioning media. This is most common in Russia with its state-owned media, which since the Ukraine crisis, have intensified the pro-Kremlin and nationalistic tone of their broadcasts, pumping out a regular stream of adoration for Putin, fiercely rejecting Western influence and attacking Kremlin’s enemies. Western nations are not safe, whilst state-owned media is not prevalent, establishment media serves a similar purpose and possibly to a more dangerous degree. Mainstream media tends to take the establishment word as gospel and dismiss dissenting opinion as nonsense, seen from the nationalistic fervour they portrayed leading up to the Iraq war, backing up the governments claims blindly. This is particularly rampant in the US, where media and journalists are so desperate to gain access to the political elite, they dare not hold them to account. There can be a distinction between right and left media organisations, so long as they all remember that they are part of ‘the club’, bold independent media is dismissed as quack, ridiculed by ‘the club’. Washington himself believed a free press to be even more important than a government, as without one, “dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter”.