Why Putin is changing his constitution

By Renaud Girard To everyone’s surprise, in his State of the Nation address of 15 January 2020, the President of Russia announced significant constitutional changes soon to be put to a referendum.

The powers of the Duma will be increased, those of the President will be decreased. The Duma will appoint ministers, including the Prime Minister. The Council of the Federation (the equivalent of the German Bundesrat) will have more responsibilities. The provisions of the Russian constitution will take precedence over those of international law.

Any citizen who has not spent the previous 25 years in Russia, or who has held a foreign passport or even a residence permit, will not be able to stand for election as President.

Immediately after these announcements, Dmitry Medvedev resigned as Prime Minister and was immediately appointed Vice-President of the National Security Council (chaired by Vladimir Putin). The president immediately appointed the dull but effective director general of taxes to the post of prime minister.

In the short term, these changes should provide Putin with a comfortable schedule starting in 2024 when his presidential term ends. He will no longer be responsible for the economic and social management of a country of 147 million inhabitants spread over 17 million square kilometres. As President of the National Security Council, he will only be concerned with what he loves: defence and international relations. Like his Chinese friend Xi Jinping, he will remain his country’s reference leader for life.

More profoundly, these changes bear the hallmark of Putin’s new ideology. In contemporary Russian history, he aims to reach the same level as Catherine the Great, Alexander I, Alexander II, Stalin – tsars who, on their death, left Russia more powerful than they had found it.

Three characteristics define Putin as a politician: nationalist, conservative, disappointed by the West. 

Nationalism has pushed the master of the Kremlin for twenty years to give back to Russia an influence in the world that Gorbachev and then Yeltsin had made it lose. In the Middle East, he is by far the most respected foreign leader. When he organizes a Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, more than forty African heads of state turn up. He sometimes dares to challenge America head-on – as he did in Ukraine and Syria – while his predecessor had delegated Russia’s agenda to decision-makers in Washington.

The conservatism of former KGB officer Putin has led him always to avoid adventurism – whether internal or external. His character prefers evolution to revolution. 

In domestic politics, he did not shoot the thieving oligarchs; he simply subdued them. In foreign policy, he annexed the Crimea and penetrated the Donbass, but refused to seize Odessa in the summer of 2014, even though the extremist theorists of New Russia encouraged him to do so. 

The only far flung military expedition he undertook was to Syria, starting in September 2015. His goal was to prevent Damascus from falling into the hands of jihadists – and he was successful. 

In Central Asia, he shows solidarity with all the former Soviet republics fighting Islamism. On the Pacific front, it has concluded a strategic alliance with China.

Putin is not intrinsically anti-Western. He admires Peter the Great, who studied in Amsterdam and converted his country to Western mores. He has a good command of German culture. In February 2000, he asked the French minister Védrine, who was visiting Moscow, to help him import European law into Russia.

But the Russian president is deeply disappointed with the West. He blames America for not keeping its 1990 promise never to extend NATO to Russia’s borders.

Psychologically, Putin is a conservative who is suspicious of revolutionary ideas, which Russians like to import from the West. He has no admiration for the Bolshevism of 1917, whose atheism and economic inefficiency he rejects. He hates the ultra-liberal and monetarist ideology of the Harvard boys of 1991, who privatized Russian industry so badly. 

Today, he rejects two types of Western ideas, revolutionizing civil and international law: gender theory and the duty to interfere. He no longer admires Europe, which he considers morally decadent, anti-Christian, eaten away by Islamist immigration, and diplomatically submissive to America. He respects strong and self-confident nations such as Trump’s United States, Xi’s China, Modi’s India, Netanyahu’s Israel.

But his country’s economy will remain weak and devoid of investors as long as he does not build a state based on the rule of of law …

This article first appeared in Le Figaro.

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