What Putin’s New Constitution Means for Russia and the West
A series of constitutional amendments will cement Putin’s hold on power, change Russian life, and give the West fewer options for dealing with him.
Russians will vote on a series of constitutional amendments on Wednesday that would give Vladimir Putin the ability to stay in power until 2036, at a time when the president’s approval rating is collapsing. They would also extend the powers of his presidency into local affairs and block potential political challengers.
The referendum contains 206 amendments rolled into a single package up for public vote. Putin’s win is considered such a certainty that new versions of the constitution with the amendments in place have already been printed and are available for sale in bookstores.
“Many of the amendments are basically populist slogans… it’s not clear what this will mean in terms of implementation and practice” said Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, an anti-Putin activist, during a recent broadcast. They include statements such as the minimum wage should match living standards and people should be able to access healthcare. “It’s not clear what this will mean in terms of implementation and practice.”
The new Russian constitution would make permanent several key changes to the office of the president and the process of elections. While the president is the country’s most powerful politician, Russia is still technically a federation with regional centers of authority operating under Moscow’s central government. Russian dissidents sometimes call it a “managed’ or “guided” democracy.
Putin has been dissolving checks-and-balances against him since 2003, beginning with the closure of TVS, an independent TV channel and the arrest of his primary political opponent, Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky. Russian parliamentary elections have been increasingly corrupt according to international observers. “In a European country, in the 21st century, one man wants to stay in power for 36 years. That is the real reason for all of these shenanigans,” said Kara-Murza.
Putin’s term was set to expire in 2024. This week’s referendum also gives the president more authority to set Russia’s foreign policy agenda and select candidates for ministerial posts, considered to be a swipe at Russia’s legislative assembly, the Duma.
The referendum could also affect how Washington deals with Moscow. One amendment gives Russian leadership the option to ignore decisions and rulings from international bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights, according to Maria Snegovaya, a fellow with the Center for European Analysis. That will make it harder for the United States and allies to use international bodies to pressure the Russian government to adhere to international law.
The new amendments also will result in “even less federalism” in Russia, she said. Putin will have additional powers to not just appoint judges to the Constitutional Court but also throw them out, and oversee [local] appointments of regional prosecutors and gain more control over municipal governance.
Snegovaya briefed congressional staffers privately on the referendum on Monday.
Russia’s referendum also notably bans from running for office those individuals who have spent a significant amount of time abroad as a dual resident or a permanent resident of another country or who hold money in foreign bank accounts. That could mean that some of the most reform-minded members of Russian society, particularly young people who have seen effective democracies in action elsewhere, won’t be able to enter Russian politics.
“People who have experience living abroad with other cultures, they are typically much more politically active. That’s because they’ve had different experiences and are trying to change Russia accordingly,” Snegovaya said. The effect of the amendment will be “to insulate the political system even more.”
The referendum comes at a time when Putin is more unpopular than ever, even in unreliable Russian polls.
“Elections would be a particular problem, since there are only so many votes that you can falsify. You can’t falsify everything especially in the cities where they have established a relatively good monitoring system.”