Streetwise Professor

January 16, 2020

Putin’s New Plan: Assuring That All Roads Continue to Lead to Him–In Russia, Anyways

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 8:13 am

Yesterday, Vladimir Putin (to whom, of course, all roads lead–just ask Nancy) proposed (which is equivalent to announcing) major changes to the Russian constitution. The most important element of his plan is a reduction in the powers of the presidency that has so assiduously built up over the past decades.

This is of course due to the fact that Putin is barred from another term in office, and resorting to some dodge like the “castling” maneuver that made the hapless Dmitry Medvedev president for a term would be too problematic even for Putin. So he is basically saying: “If I can’t be president, no one will be.”

This is not to say that Putin is going away, of course: far from it. He is basically playing a divide-to-rule strategy. The plan splits up the president’s powers, assigning some to the Duma and likely others to the heretofore advisory State Council. Furthermore, he imposes constraints on who can become president, eliminating anyone who has lived abroad in the last 20 years or holds dual citizenship. Since this group includes a wide swath of the Russian elite, the plan culls the heard of potential serious challengers to him, challengers who would likely attempt to reassemble the powers of the presidency were they to assume it.

This fragmentation of power plays perfectly to Putin’s strengths. Even in the current system his primary role, and source of power, is managing contending clans within the Russian elite. He is the balancer, the mediator. The mafia don ruling over squabbling mafiosi.

Fragmenting power actually increases the demand for mediation services. Under his plan, he will remain the essential man, and indeed become even more essential because under it there will be more disputes and more disputants.

So Pelosi’s phrase is apt, though her application to Trump is not: in Russia, all roads lead to Putin, and this new plan is designed explicitly to keep it that way.

Perhaps the diminution of his formal powers will impede his effectiveness as a mediator. But maybe not: a strong case can be made that he’s not a successful balancer because he’s president, but he’s president because he’s a successful balancer. The need for someone to play that role, and his unchallenged effectiveness in playing it, will remain. The formal appurtenances are of secondary importance.

In other words–no surprise here–Putin is designing a system that will perpetuate his role in a highly personalized, de-institutionalized political system.

Many Russians will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief, as this reduces the uncertainty surrounding his leaving the presidency in 2024. But their relief is only temporary, as this merely kicks the can down the road, and as we know, roads in Russia are horrible.

That is, this plan only defers answering the question: who replaces Putin? Maybe this maintains stability while he is alive–and sentient–but his life will end, and his physical and mental powers are likely to decline substantially before that time. What then?

The post-Putin transition was almost guaranteed to be a chaotic and vicious power struggle because of the highly personalized and de-institutionalized nature of the system he created. If anything, his proposed alternative is even more personalized and de-institutionalized because he will play the same functional role, but in an even less formalized structure. This, combined with the creation of new fiefdoms (e.g., by empowering the Duma) is likely to make the succession struggle even more fraught.

As the old commercial said: you can pay me now, or pay me later–with the implication that paying later will be far more expensive. So it will be in Russia, as in oil filters.

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  1. I find it slightly strange that you are, correctly, stressing the “informal” (i.e. criminal) nature of power of the Kremlin mafia, while at the same time analyzing the structure of a formal document proposed for public consumption.

    The sole reason Russia has a constitution is that a constitution is something that states generally have, and it is necessary for the mafia to pretend to be a state.

    Otherwise it would be rather inconvenient for the mafia to deal with states: there is no “mafia secretary” in the US government to communicate with the various capos and consiglieris, so they need to be assigned some formal state labels.

    What is actually written in the existing or the amended constitution is irrelevant. The documents showing the actual power structure are orders for troops movements, FSB purges, “court decisions” for oligarch expropriation etc. Could actually be an interesting “big data” project that.

    Comment by Ivan — January 18, 2020 @ 12:51 am

  2. @Ivan–I have long stressed the informal nature of the Kremlin mafia. My point was how Putin manipulates the formal structures to increase his informal powers.

    Look back at this blog going back donkey years, especially when I call Russia a “natural state.” I’ve been making the formal vs. informal point for years.

    The reason the formal structures matter going forward is that a formal structure inconsistent with the formal one, e.g., a system with a formally strong president other than Putin, is a recipe for conflict and chaos. As long as the formal and informal systems are in alignment, as is the case now, there is no need for change. 2024 threatens to bring them into misalignment. So Putin will solve that by changing the formal system, and creating an obscurantist constitution that permits the informal system to grind along as long as he is alive–or until he is a drooling, senescent fool.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 20, 2020 @ 7:38 pm

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