Vladimir Putin’s announcement on 15 January on how Russia should be run in the future, namely that the president should have fewer powers and the parliament more powers, was well received in Russia by large sections of the population. But how did Western countries react, how was Putin’s plan for the period after 2024 commented?
The psychologists know it from everyday life: in the assessment of other people, we often project our own attitude to life into our surroundings. The good-faith and honest little man assumes that everyone else is also good-faith and honest, because he then falls for the Tricks of the tricksters. Tricksters, on the other hand, assume that all the others are dishonest tricksters, and live accordingly distrustfully. Money-hungry people, on the other hand, also suspect in their circle of friends above all money-hungry people and therefore have no inhibitions at all to unbutton this a few Pennies or Dollars.
Journalists are naturally subject to this psychological mechanism. Those who like to take up arms themselves, recognize in others above all the aggressiveness. Those who are more likely to be mediators themselves are still most likely to recognize in political decisions approaches to avoiding conflicts or even to promoting peace.
This phenomenon was again clearly observed on the occasion of Putin’s announcement of the future leadership structure of Russia. Many newspapers of major media houses wanted to see only one thing in the new rules according to Putin’s Plan: the preservation of his power. Of course, because you too, these newspapers, are fighting bitterly to preserve your power, which Google, Facebook and other giants are increasingly losing to you as “enemies”.
The daily newspapers of the CH Media Group showed this most clearly in Switzerland: “Putin wants even more power” was simply the Headline on the front page. And to the comment of a woman: “Hypocritical reboot”. Inna Hartwich has indeed, as she once confessed in detail in the NZZ-Feuilleton, the Problem of two “homelands”. But in Putin’s assessment, she has no Dilemma. She writes what the western newspapers expect of her, and that is always the same: West Good, East evil.
Even the NZZ was a little bit more careful. “Putin launches a big Experiment with power” was the Headline. A few lines, however, include the sentence: “the radical constitutional reform that President Putin is proposing does not serve to liberalize political life. Rather, it is a trick with which the Kremlin leadership wants to wrap power in a new guise without having to relinquish it.”
The “Echo der Zeit” of Swiss Radio SRF was already something differentiated. The question of interpreting the reforms proposed by Putin went to Ulrich Schmid, the professor responsible for monitoring Russia at the University of Economics and business in St. Gallen. And he even complimented Putin without wanting to have understood this. He mentioned that Putin was an admirer of Tsar Alexander III. This Tsar actually understood himself as a servant of his people, brought Russia forward economically and was a great promoter of culture. Alexander III knew that it was his task to promote Russia, but also to secure it. Hence his saying that Russia has only “two friends”, “the army and the Navy”. But problems had to be solved diplomatically, not with weapons, was always his motto. He did not start any wars himself, but was always ready to defend Russia against attacks from outside with a strong army. Alexander III is still revered in Russia today, not only by Putin.
Ulrich Schmid, himself the author of several books, recognizes something else in Putin’s reform plan: the desire to maintain a good place in the Russian history books of the future. Could it be that the prominent St. Gallen Professor would also like to live on as a wise head in the libraries?
To stay in Switzerland: Pascal Hollenstein, the “head of journalism” of the CH Media group, shot down the bird, thus still at the top of the editor-in-chief. It is also clear to him that Putin is only concerned with maintaining power. But he recognized in Putin’s proposal at least the step towards more democracy. His wonderful conclusion: “ironically,” Putin’s proposals are suitable for creating more democracy in Russia. “Could an autocrat like him, in a sense inadvertently, create constitutional institutions that enable a transition to a democratic future? The history of Russia is full of irony. Why not now?“so Hollenstein literally. Because it is unthinkable for him, from the position of Super-Editor-in-chief, that Putin could actually have meant it that way.
More noteworthy are the comments of the freelance journalists
Hardly any German-language newspaper lacked the word “power” in the Headline when it came to the reforms announced by Putin. Unlike commentators who are not on the payroll of a powerful media company. Not for the first time, Kai Ehlers, a long-time German Russia expert and Observer, is one of those commentators who approached the announced reforms without negative prejudices and without a projection of power:
Brief note on Putin’s strategic foresight
After Vladimir Putin has arrived in the international Establishment as a global crisis manager, he seems to think the time is right to prepare for his departure in 2024. Long-term preparedness is indeed extremely important for Russia’s continued existence. Finally, it must not be forgotten that the “Putin System” was and is an extremely unstable one. Putin does not want to jeopardize his imminent departure, after twenty years at the helm of the Russian state, wisely and with foresight, to initiate, when he Reached the.
What has been achieved is the stabilization of Russia’s statehood, which was completely shattered after the end of the Soviet Union. Stabilization was made possible on the basis of the consensus created by Putin of forces that were still extremely divided when he took office as president in 2000. Components of the consensus were essentially:
- the oligarchs brought back to social responsibility after the Wild Years of privatization,
- the support of the government by the “siloviki”, the members of the secret services and the military
- subordination of regional Princes to the center.
Putin managed to keep the country quiet in this constellation as long as the memory of the chaotic years of collapse still held the population captive. In the meantime, the years of reconstruction have passed, Young forces have grown up, pushing for the replacement of authoritarian structures and participation in power as well as in the riches of the country.
Against this Background, the Putin’s announced constitutional reform to give Parliament and the Federation Council more influence appears, together with the replacement of the government, while sustaining the presidential structure, and the appreciation of the hardly any which have surfaced, and all other structures, the state suspended the Council, as the attempt to control the consensus of the past years on the cliff of the coming changing of the guard also.
The assumption that the resignation of the government, in particular Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, is primarily intended to divert attention from current social and economic problems seems obvious, but certainly falls short in this weighting. In the foreground of Putin’s proposals is undoubtedly the provision for maintaining the long-term stability of the country. In a sense, Medvedev’s departure is collateral damage, especially since he is highly praised in the National Security Council alongside Putin.
From Putin’s point of view, two possible extremes must be avoided. One extreme would be the replacement of Putin by a successor from the ranks of the “siloviki”, who withdrew from Russia’s role as crisis manager in foreign policy and renounced the fragile consensus, especially with the population demanding social reforms and economic improvement. The other would be a weakening of the center with consequent centrifugal “Diadochic struggles”. They could not only weaken the cohesion in the country, they could also be intervened in from outside.
Both variants would put Russia, in its still difficult economic Situation, its fundamental vulnerability as a multi-ethnic organism and its clinging to the major global transformation processes of the present, in danger of falling back to the situation before the year 2000, i.e. before Putin took over as stabiliser and global crisis manager. Clearly speaking, it would put Russia in danger of becoming a colony after all – now not only of the “West”, but then possibly also of the strengthening China.
All speculations that Putin wants above all to consolidate his own power beyond 2024 pass by the peculiarities of the post-Soviet Russian multi-ethnic organism, which lives on consensus.
Putin’s proposals may also temporarily strengthen his Position, but at the same time they set the course for the inclusion of new forces in the existing consensus. The proposals clearly have the goal to preserve the cohesion of this Russian organism, even after Putin’s departure. Putin does not want to leave behind a disintegration of the laboriously achieved stability. Time will tell whether this will succeed.
It is also true that Putin wants to live on after his departure as a “good tsar” in the memory of his compatriots. But who would blame him.
… and a wise voice from the USA
An interesting and above all very informative voice comes from the USA.
Putin proposes changes to constitution
There’s been a major shakeup this week in domestic Russian politics. It kicked off with Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly earlier this week, which usually happens in the spring, not in January. Among other topics, Putin announced changes he wanted made to the Russian constitution, which he had telegraphed during his December Q&A. This was followed by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s resignation (along with his cabinet) and the appointment of Mikhail Mishustin as his replacement.
However, before we delve into the details of this turn of events, it’s important to review what Putin’s priorities have been for Russia since he came to power, which will help to place these latest events into a larger context.
As I’ve discussed many times before, Russia was on the verge of being a failed state in 2000 when Putin took the helm. There were crises in every major area of state governance: the military was in shambles, the economy had collapsed, crime was rampant, massive poverty pervaded the country, and Russians were experiencing the worst mortality crisis since World War II.
Having studied Putin’s governance and how Russia has fared over the two decades in which he has ruled, it’s clear that he’s had three main priorities for Russia in the following order:
- Ensuring Russia’s national security and sovereignty as an independent nation. In previous writings, I’ve explained the importance of national security to Russians as a result of their history and geography;
- Improving the economy and living standards for Russians; and,
- The gradual democratization of the country.
These three priorities are reflected in this week’s Address to the Federal Assembly, the equivalent of the U.S. president’s annual state of the union. Putin reiterated to his audience that the first priority of national security and state sovereignty had been secured:
“For the first time ever – I want to emphasise this – for the first time in the history of nuclear missile weapons, including the Soviet period and modern times, we are not catching up with anyone, but, on the contrary, other leading states have yet to create the weapons that Russia already possesses.
The country’s defence capability is ensured for decades to come, but we cannot rest on our laurels and do nothing. We must keep moving forward, carefully observing and analysing the developments in this area across the world, and create next-generation combat systems and complexes. This is what we are doing today.”
Putin goes on to emphasize that success on this first priority enables Russia to focus even more seriously on the second priority:
“Reliable security creates the basis for Russia’s progressive and peaceful development and allows us to do much more to overcome the most pressing internal challenges, to focus on the economic and social growth of all our regions in the interest of the people, because Russia’s greatness is inseparable from dignified life of its every citizen. I see this harmony of a strong power and well-being of the people as a foundation of our future.”
In light of the abysmal living conditions that Putin inherited in 2000, he did a remarkable job over the next decade of cutting poverty, improving infrastructure, restoring regular pension payments as well as increasing the amount, raising wages, etc. Russians, whether they agree with everything Putin does or not, no matter how frustrated they may get with him regarding particular issues, are generally grateful to him for this turnaround in their country. This progress on his second priority has underpinned his approval ratings, which have never dipped below the 60’s.
But his comments during his address reflected mixed success currently as economic conditions for Russians have stagnated over the past few years. One contributing factor has been the sanctions imposed by the west in response to Russia’s reunification with Crimea as a result of the 2014 coup in Ukraine. Putin has done a respectable job of cushioning the Russian economy from the worst effects of the sanctions and even using them to advantage with respect to import substitution in the agricultural and industrial sectors. However, polls of the population have consistently shown over the past 2-3 years that Russians are losing patience with the lack of improvement in living standards.
Another problem that is limiting economic progress is the pattern of local bureaucrats not implementing Putin’s edicts. For example, in his 2018 and 2019 addresses, Putin laid out an expensive plan for economic improvement based on infrastructure projects throughout the country as well as improving health and education. Budget allocations were made for these projects and the funds released, but many have only been partially realized. Confirming what has been reported in some quarters, Putin complained about the deficiencies in the roll-out of these policies during his address.
I believe this is connected to the subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who will now step into the newly created role of Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, while his cabinet remains in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed. Medvedev has not been particularly effective as prime minister and has been very unpopular over the past several years as suspicions of corruption have swirled around him. He is also problematic ideologically as he has always embraced neoliberal economic policy which has no traction with most of the Russian people due to the experience of the 1990’s when neoliberal capitalists ran amok. He also lacks the charisma and creative problem-solving skills of Putin.
But in all fairness, no prime minister will have an easy job in Russia if significant changes are needed or a transition is still in progress. Throughout Russia’s history, whenever leaders wanted to reform the system, they’ve always encountered the problem of implementation in terms of the bureaucracy. Whether out of malevolence, fear of losing perceived benefits, inertia, or incompetence, bureaucrats lower down the chain don’t always put the reforms effectively or consistently in place. Putin has complained at various times of local bureaucrats’ intransigence and its negative effects on average citizens whom they are supposed to be serving.
Not much is known about Medvedev’s immediate replacement, Mikhail Mishustin, except that he is a former businessman and has served as head of Russia’s Tax Service since 2010. In his capacity leading the tax agency, he is held in positive regard, credited with modernizing and streamlining the historically onerous tax collection system.
The third priority of Putin has been gradual democratization of the country. Putin is often characterized in the west as an autocrat and a dictator. However, as I’ve written before, there are many democratic reforms that have been implemented under Putin’s rule that are often ignored by western media and analysts. It is not that democracy has not been a priority for Putin, it’s that it was to be subordinated to the other two priorities. Putin, as well as many other Russians, have been nervous about possible instability. With their history of constant upheaval over the past 120 years – two revolutions, two world wars, numerous famines, the Great Terror, and a national collapse – this is understandable.
Putin inherited a system of governance that featured a strong president and a weak parliamentary system as reflected in the 1993 constitution ushered in by Yeltsin – the origins of which are explained here. Putin has used this system effectively throughout his 20 years in power – 16 of them as president – to try to solve the various crises mentioned earlier. Such strong, centralized power is necessary when a state is dealing with multiple existential emergencies.
At this point, I think Putin realizes that Russia, though it still has significant problems to be addressed, is no longer in a state of emergency. Therefore, it is no longer necessary to keep quite the same level of power concentrated in the office of the presidency, which is open to abuse by future occupants. Here is what Putin said about this:
“Russian society is becoming more mature, responsible and demanding. Despite the differences in the ways to address their tasks, the main political forces speak from the position of patriotism and reflect the interests of their followers and voters.”
The constitutional reforms Putin goes on to discuss include giving the parliament the right to appoint the prime minister and his/her cabinet, no foreign citizenship or residency of major office holders at the federal level (president, prime minister, cabinet members, parliamentarians, national security agents, judges, etc.), expanding the authority of local governmental bodies, and strengthening the Constitutional Court and the independence of judges. He also mentioned codifying certain aspects of socioeconomic justice into the constitution:
And lastly, the state must honour its social responsibility under any conditions throughout the country. Therefore, I believe that the Constitution should include a provision that the minimum wage in Russia must not be below the subsistence minimum of the economically active people. We have a law on this, but we should formalise this requirement in the Constitution along with the principles of decent pensions, which implies a regular adjustment of pensions according to inflation.
In other words, Putin realizes that the system as it is currently constructed has outlived its usefulness and some modest changes are needed to keep the country moving forward. Despite the constant nonsense that passes for news and analysis of Russia in the west, civil society is alive and well in Russia. Putin is aware of the citizen-led initiatives that have been occurring throughout the country to improve local communities and it appears that he is ready to allow more space for this new participation of average Russians to solve problems for which the official bureaucracy seems to be stuck:
Our society is clearly calling for change. People want development, and they strive to move forward in their careers and knowledge, in achieving prosperity, and they are ready to assume responsibility for specific work. Quite often, they have better knowledge of what, how and when should be changed where they live and work, that is, in cities, districts, villages and all across the nation.
The pace of change must be expedited every year and produce tangible results in attaining worthy living standards that would be clearly perceived by the people. And, I repeat, they must be actively involved in this process.
How these changes will actually be instituted and what the results will be is, of course, unknown at this time. Putin suggested that the eventual package of constitutional amendments will be voted on by the Russian people. It also appears that Putin will indeed step down at the end of his presidential term in 2024, but it is still very likely that he will remain in an active advisory role.
Unlike the knee-jerk malign motives that are automatically attributed to anything Putin does by the western political class, I see this as a calculated risk that Putin is ready to take to make further progress on his second and third priorities for Russia.