by Akhmet Makhmoudov (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 1, Rajab, 1441)
In January 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced constitutional reforms which aim to reduce some powers of the president but increase those of the parliament and the Federal Council. The Western corporate media immediately pounced on vague aspects of some of the proposed constitutional reforms and analyzed the changes only through the prism of how these benefit Putin to remain a powerful figure in Russia. While this perspective may be partly correct, it is only part of the picture. It is important to look at the broader repercussions of the proposed reforms. Before analyzing their consequences, it is important to understand why the changes were initiated.
The primary reason is that Putin wants to create an institutions-based system in Russia which will outlive him and not be persona dependent. Creating institutional and ideological loyalty has always been the mission of Russian statesmen, from Peter the Great to Lenin.
Russia comprises the largest landmass in the world and has over one hundred nationalities. It is thus paranoid about breaking up into smaller independent states. This fear partially became a reality during the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and then after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the early 1990s, Chechnya and Tatarstan initiated pro-independence movements which almost made the Russian Federation suffer the same destiny as the Soviet Union.
Currently, Putin as a person is the main pillar of politics in Russia and he sees the limits of this phenomenon. The Western elite might hate him for many reasons, but Russians support him because he is a true patriot who places Russia’s interests above those of the internal oligarchs and NATO regimes.
When Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as Prime Minister in August 1999, Russia was in bad shape politically, economically and socially. Within a few years, however, Putin revived Russia into a regional power. Between 1999 and 2008, the Russian GDP grew by 94% and per capita GDP doubled. These and other factors clearly show that Russia as a state has greatly benefited from Putin’s rule.
Throughout its history, the Russian state management was about making sure the central government retained control over its vast territory. The collapse of the Soviet Union evoked great fear among Russian elite about the decentralization of power. Some bureaucrats from the Soviet era mistakenly assumed that if the USSR was less decentralized, its collapse could have been prevented. Nevertheless, the central government in Russia always understood that a vast country like Russia comprising a multitude of ethnicities, religions and languages cannot be governed in unitary fashion. Thus, the Russian governing model over the past several decades in the realm of separation of powers was about finding a balance between a unitary and a federal mode of governance.
The most dramatic showdown on the scene of separation of powers manifested itself in Russia in 1993 when the presidency battled parliament with tanks in the streets of Moscow. To avoid a repeat of that scenario with an added ethnic separatist component, between the years 2000 and 2004, Putin significantly reduced the powers of regional governors and by 2004 was empowered to fire and nominate them. However, he rarely exercised this authority. Apart from the Western minded elite that are detached from the masses, the Russian society viewed these developments positively in order to avoid the chaos of the Yeltsin years.
The key question is, will Putin’s proposed reforms succeed? The most likely answer is yes as Putin still has four more years to directly manage their implementation. It should also be noted that the greatest threat to Russia’s territorial integrity is not federalism, but centralization. Whenever Moscow tried to increase its control over other regions and ethnicities, it faced a backlash. Part of Putin’s success has been a balanced decentralization. Also, there is no competitor to Putin among Russia’s ruling elite. Despite the Western media’s subjective coverage of Russia, even if one accepts their figures, Putin has a domestic approval rating that most NATO politicians can only dream of.
As the Western media continues to demonize Russia and Putin, it makes the implementation of the proposed constitutional reforms easier. By constantly “finding” Moscow’s footprint in the decline of Western influence, Western regimes unintentionally increase Putin’s domestic prestige and legitimacy as a protector of Russian national interests.
Assessing the reforms realistically, they would be successful but Russia’s reaction to the West’s highly problematic destabilization in Central Asia and the Caucasus will play a role in how they progress. It should be noted that the last leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated reforms in the Soviet Union with similar intentions as Putin, but events in Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and the Baltic states obstructed the reform process.
Currently there are no indicators pointing to any serious domestic disturbances in Russia. There are potential hotspots abroad, but Moscow’s involvement in any of the adventures abroad could help Putin in going forward with internal reforms. The Russian public views successful external Russian involvement as a positive political feature, as it plays on the nostalgic feelings of many Russians, seeing the new state as sort of a Soviet Union type superpower able to flex its muscles worldwide. Thus, unless some unexpected internal hotspots within Russia emerge, Putin’s reforms have popular backing and are on track.
Absence of domestic instability does not mean that the reforms face no hurdles at all. Many Russian officials see setting up their children’s lives in the West as a life goal. Thus, the biggest challenge to the current government in Russia is that it lacks a distinct political narrative of its own. The ruling elite in Russia view themselves as Western and orient their ideological compass towards the West. It should be borne in mind that when Putin came to power, for the first several years he actively courted Western regimes and until very recently used to refer to them as our ‘Western partners’.
A significant portion of Russian society defines a successful model of governance to be similar to that of the West. While Putin wants to chart a different path for Russia, decades of Westernization cannot be undone so easily. Thus, a significant portion of the population will often hold Russian statesmen to Western liberal-secular standards, many of which are inapplicable in Russia.
While the Westernized part of Russian society is mainly urban, relatively wealthy, it is not a majority at all. Yet they wield huge political leverage. On the other hand, because the ruling elite are detached from average rural dwellers who are mostly poor and are not quite as Western minded as the bureaucrats running the country, Putin’s government does not have a specific constituency. Thus, the proposed reforms have to appeal to the urban Westernized segment of society. If they do not, a fertile ground for their derailment can easily form.