Putin 5.0?

FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin waves as he leaves after the Victory Day Parade in Red Square in Moscow, Russia June 24, 2020. The military parade, marking the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, was scheduled for May 9 but postponed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov - RC2NFH9L23BA/File Photo

On July 1, Russia finished a weeklong period of voting in a referendum on 200 amendments to the 1993 Yeltsin constitution. President Vladimir Putin had first called for changes to the constitution in January, and, within a few months, all the amendments were ready. Official figures heralded a triumph for Putin: a 65% turnout, with 78% voting in favor of the amendments and 21% against. Of course, there were claims of ballot stuffing and vote fraud, as well as of medical personnel and others being pressured to vote. But the amendments had already been passed by the Duma (Russia’s legislature), so the plebiscite was cosmetic — intended to boost Putin’s popularity and legitimacy during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic downturn.

The amendments include a ban on same-sex marriage, in addition to stipulations that Russian laws supersede international law, that the Russian language takes precedence over others, and that officials with high national security responsibilities cannot have dual citizenship or own bank accounts and property abroad. God is explicitly mentioned. Russian citizens are prohibited from questioning the official historical narrative about the victory in World War II. The new constitution generally embodies conservative social values and a new emphasis on Russian nationalism.

But the most important amendment is the one that resets Putin’s electoral clock. Instead of retiring in 2024 at the end of his fourth term in office, he can now stay in power for another two terms — until 2036. At that point, aged 83, he will have been in power a decade longer than Josef Stalin.

The question of what comes after Putin has been answered, at least for now. It is Putin. But what would a Putin 5.0 or 6.0 term look like? So far, the new constitution promises more of the same, with an increasingly aging leadership. Indeed, some are already likening it to the late Brezhnev era — domestic stagnation coupled with foreign policy activism.

Modern Russia is still taking shape”

The day after the referendum, Putin thanked the country, making it clear that he would be the guarantor of stability to protect his people during unsettled times:

Here we have the improvement of the political system as well as social guarantees, strengthening of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and, finally, our spiritual, historical and moral values that link our generations. However, we must not forget one more thing: from a historical perspective, it has been only a short time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and, of course, modern Russia is still taking shape. This is true for all aspects of our life: the political system, the economy, and others. We are still very vulnerable in many ways; a lot, as they say, was done in a hurry. We need internal stability and time to strengthen the country and all its institutions. So thanks again to those who supported the amendments.

Putin moved to extend his power indefinitely because he wanted to quash the succession maneuvering that had been underway since he was re-elected in 2018. Now, the elite must accept that he will remain in the Kremlin. For those who fear for their political and economic future once he is gone, this is a welcome move. For others, as public opinion data shows, the prospect of decades with little change and limited opportunities for upward mobility is disheartening. Only a quarter of the population says that it trusts Putin. With the COVID-19 pandemic still in full swing, oil prices too low, and GDP predicted to fall by as much at 10% this year, Putin faces serious domestic challenges.

Economic reforms unlikely

Foremost is the economy. After his re-election in 2018, Putin announced the National Projects, an ambitious $400 billion spending plan. The aim is to boost living standards by 2024 and focus on 13 key policy areas, such as health care, education, technology, and infrastructure. The economic dislocation caused by COVID-19 has forced the Kremlin to scale back these projects, but Putin is determined to show that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin can deliver.

The collapse in oil demand and prices, exacerbated by the ill-advised oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia in March, has put further strains on economy heavily dependent on hydrocarbon revenues to sustain its budget. Demographic decline — exacerbated by a steady brain drain — continues.

Putin has been reluctant to undertake significant economic reforms which threaten vested interests or arouse popular discontent. Is he any more likely in the next decade to pursue needed reforms that diversify the economy away from dependence on oil and gas and create a more modern state? Past performance would suggest that he is not.

Foreign policy adventurism

Putin’s newly-endorsed political longevity could also affect Russia’s foreign policy. So far, the pandemic appears not to have impacted Russia’s drive to reassert itself as a major power with global interests and entitlement. Relations with the West remain brittle; there has been no progress on ending the war in Ukraine; Russia continues to back Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war; and the pandemic has driven Russia and China closer together. Putin has long been adept at seizing opportunities presented to him by a disunited and distracted West, and he has already been in power longer than most major international leaders.

Many of Russia’s assertive international moves are undertaken on the cheap: the wars in Ukraine and Syria, and the involvement in Venezuela and Libya, for instance. The growing use of mercenary forces run by individuals close to the Kremlin means that Moscow can pursue its agenda — and often thwart U.S. or European interests — without draining its state coffers and arousing public opposition to sending Russia soldiers in harm’s way.

Putin may well pursue a more activist foreign policy going forward, especially if the economic situation at home further deteriorates. The “Crimea effect” — appealing to patriotism and blaming the West for Russia’s economic ills — has long worn off, but the Kremlin could undertake new ventures to distract public attention from economic hardship. There could be more pressure on neighbors who are seen to challenge Russia, such as Belarus. There could be more concerted efforts to take advantage of the deep divisions in Europe over Russia policy and create a more united group of countries — led by France — that are seeking a new reset with Russia. Similarly, if U.S-European relations continue to deteriorate — or even if they begin to improve if presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the November election — the Kremlin could more actively seek to benefit from those fissures. Russia could also deploy its wide array of cyber and social media capabilities to intensify its information wars with the West.

Russia’s ability to increase its international influence will also depend on what other countries do. With the United States withdrawing from global involvement — most recently from the World Health Organization — Putin can increasingly position Russia as a multilateral leader and responsible global stakeholder, and reinforce Russia’s reputation as a pragmatic, status-quo power with which most of the non-Western world believes it can do business.

Putin 5.0 could, therefore, ensure that Russia — despite its limited economic capabilities (a per capita GDP the size of Italy’s) and a military much smaller than that of the United States — becomes an even more influential international player.

Surprises are still possible

But will there be a Putin 5.0? Putin has not yet committed to running for another term in 2024. The immediate goal of the constitutional referendum was to end internecine power struggles focused on succession, and, for now, these have subsided. This has strengthened Putin’s hand.

But public opinion polls show that the Russian public wants change. Putin may not be a lame duck, but it is not clear that Russians would support another 16 years of his rule. As has been the case throughout Russian history, things appear to be stable until suddenly they are not. Putin likes to surprise, as was clear from his hastily-arranged constitutional referendum. But he himself could face unanticipated challenges to his plan to stay in power indefinitely.