January 22, 2020

Putin’s “January Sermon”: A Path to Democratization or a Russian Hoax?

By Punsara Amarasinghe

The volatile political trajectory in Russia has always created awe among those interested in the geopolitical space of the Ruski Mir. However, history has repeatedly ascribed to Russia the characteristics of a state that cannot be easily fathomed. Just how a dull and calm plot reaches its most unexpected culmination in a Dostoyevsky’s novel, the political trajectory in Russia has always been thrilling. The most recent events followed by President Vladimir Putin’s annual speech in the state Duma on the 15th of January are the epitome of the uncanny governmental nature of the world’s largest state.

The speech delivered by President Putin on the 15th of January in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, was an entirely unexpected event. In his speech, Putin proposed a series of constitutional changes that would escalate the powers of the parliament, eventually leading to an increase in the prerogatives of the Prime Minister’s Office. Article 83 and 84 of the current Russian constitution have vested considerable power in the hands of the president over the Duma and the proposed changes would inevitably revoke them. A legitimate question now appears to be: “Why would Putin allow the Duma to curtail his power?”.

Throughout his numerous governments, President Putin has aptly demonstrated his sharp political acumen as a leader who properly kept a strong grip on the Russian institutional apparatus. However, this time he opted for a completely different strategy by enabling the Duma to appoint the Prime Minister, who was previously appointed exclusively by the President.  The state council was a creation of Putin during his first term in Kremlin. Thus far it has served as an advisory body and it has consisted of regional governors, speakers of both houses in the parliament and the party leaders. The proposed constitutional recommendations will boost its power and it is still unclear in what way will it safeguard Putin from a political ebb.

Tn this regard, the evasive strategy taken by President Putin seems to echo the one of former President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019. Nazarbayev resigned from the presidency and retained the influential job of leading the country’s Security Council, thus setting the agenda from behind. Perhaps, Putin will embrace the same strategy of signaling an honorable stepdown while keeping his grip in a different way such a making himself the head of the National Council. Yet, making such an armchair prediction about President Putin’s intentions to remain in power beyond 2024 may be rather futile, given the historical unpredictability of his political actions.

The appointment of Mikhail Mishustin to the Prime Minister post after Dmitry Medvedev stepped down along with his cabinet is the next notable incident that emerged after the 15th of January. Unlike Putin’s protégée Medvedev, the newly appointed Prime Minister holds no significant political activism within Putin’s close circle. He is being described as a technocrat and an apolitical figure who was responsible for easing the transition of the old-aged Russian tax service from the post-Soviet period into an era of digitalization. From a vantage point, Putin’s choice appears to be a wise move, with the meritocratic capability of Mishustin seemingly trumping his lack of affinity with politics. Since the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, Russia’s finances have been in the doldrums and some economists have described the last decade as a stagnant chapter in Russia’s economy. Given Mishustin’s solid background in economics and practical experience with taxation, he may have a good spotlight to prove his competence as Premier in the midst of economic stagnation. Mishustin’s installment recalls Count Sergei Witte’s appointment by Tsar Nicolas II in 1905, whose econometrics training background boosted Russia’s industrial growth in the short-run.

Throughout Russian history, democratic reforms have always been conducted through tough unilateral moves. As a result, the centralization of political power has paradoxically always impeded Russia from reaching democratization. The confrontation between President Yeltsin and the Parliament in the fall of 1993 eventually ended up in Yeltsin’s outrageous move of sending armed tanks to the parliament building. The current Russian constitution which has placed enormous power in the hands of the President is an offshoot of the constitution adopted during the Yeltsin era. Putin’s abrupt decision to reduce that will at least theoretically undo the damage brought by the 1993 constitution. In principle, the transition of power from the President to the Parliament will pave the way to an increase in the check and balance capacity of Russian political culture. All in all, the ostensible motive of the constitutional reforms will assist Russia to get into better strides as a normal democracy by avoiding the centralization of power around one single man. But can we really believe that a country that has never undergone a proper democratic transition will be adamant to such a radical change?

Realpolitik in Russian history has always shown the rise of lesser-known political characters to the zenith of power by taking advantage of chaos. When the Russian state was on the verge of collapsing, Mikhail Romanova came out of nowhere and created the house of Romanovs that lasted for three hundred years. When Lenin died, creating a chaotic power vacuum in 1924, lesser-known Stalin exterminated all his foes and tightened the power grip on newly born USSR, transforming the country into a superpower. The sudden power shift Putin proposed on the 15th of January is simply a tranquil sign before a great political storm in Russia and, ironically, Russians are no strangers to such paradigm shifts.

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