The Cabinet and the Constitution: What is Vladimir Putin up to?

Vladimir Putin recently announced his plans for reforms that would reduce the powers of his successor, by watering down the presidency and strengthening parliament. This will involve giving the lower house of parliament (Duma) powers to appoint the prime minister and the cabinet.

This will be different from the current arrangement where the prime minister is appointed by the president before being approved by the parliament. Other proposed changes were: limiting the supremacy of international law, amending the rules on the presidential term and strengthening laws that prohibit presidential candidates who have held citizenship or foreign residency permits.

Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev who resigned with his cabinet after Putin’s announcement said: “These changes, when they are adopted, will introduce substantial changes not only to an entire range of articles of the constitution, but also to the entire balance of power, the power of the executive, the power of the legislature, the power of judiciary”.

He said he was resigning together with his ministers to allow Putin to make important decisions. He had served as President several years back before switching roles with Putin, but what has left many people talking is what Putin is trying to achieve with his reforms.

Reports of plans to introduce constitutional reforms that would enable Putin to be able to cling on to power had first emerged mid last year when Bloomberg claimed that his aides and advisors were working on ways to allow him to prolong his rule. It claimed that among the changes that were being considered were electoral reforms that were to give the Kremlin control over parliament thus enabling Putin to extend his rule.

Shortly after, the speaker of Russia’s parliament Mr, Vyacheslav Volodin published an article titled ‘Living Constitution of Development’, in which he proposed changes to the Russian constitution. Among his proposals was for the parliament to be given more powers to appoint cabinet ministers and prime ministers in what he termed as “the participation of the State Duma (parliament) in the formation of the Government of the Russian Federation.”

He justified his proposals by saying, “A greater balance of power does not boil down to the task of providing checks and balances. The main thing that it should is a higher quality of interaction and coordination of the work of the state mechanism. The quality of a democratic government, which in turn is just necessary for the fullest possible realization of rights and constitutional foundations.”

Bloomberg cited two people close to the Kremlin and one legislator claimed, “Keeping a stronghold on parliament would widen Putin’s room for manoeuvrability. It could potentially allow the 66-year-old Russian president to switch roles, keeping the reign of power as head of the ruling party and prime minister with expanded constitutional authority at the expense of the presidency.”

But this appears not to be the case. Putin is not interested in extending his rule or switching roles with Medvedev to return as a powerful prime minister. He aims to leave the government at the end of his term but continue wielding power behind the scene. Why?

Professor Daniel Treisman of the University of California recently said, “For most autocratic leaders, it has been quite dangerous to leave power. Things have to be going extremely well, and the system has to be stable, to get out without any repercussion.”

Putin has a legacy, allies and interests which he will he need to protect even after he leaves the government. They are so entrenched in the Russian political system that the absence of his patronage would result in a serious disruption. Apart from that, remaining powerful could also help him avoid international legal actions that could come calling after he leaves power. Although at home, he will still enjoy immunity from prosecution under a law passed in 2001.

One state vehicle through which Putin will most probably use to pull the strings in the government after his retirement, is the State Council which he currently chairs. According to the Kremlin, “the State Council is an advisory body that assists the President in guaranteeing coordinated functioning and interaction of the various state bodies of powers.”

The composition of the council leaves no doubt about its influence. Among its members are the “Speaker of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, the Speaker of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoys to the federal districts, heads of the highest executive agencies of state power in Russia’s federal constituent entities, and the heads of the political parties in the State Duma.”

Although the work of the council has been advisory, in the latest constitutional proposals Putin wants to enshrine it formally in the constitution to give it clear and substantive powers. Leading such a powerful body would place him over his successor as a supreme leader.

One doesn’t have to be serving in the government to be in the council. As the Kremlin states on its website, “State council can be extended to individuals holding senior positions” but also people “who have extensive experience of public service”. So there is nothing to prevent Putin from serving in the council after his retirement.

A deal between Medvedev and Putin in the latest developments is something nobody can deny. The two have enjoyed close working relationship apart from being close political allies, and whatever they have under their sleeves in these new manoeuvres is still being unravelled.