An Iranian-Kazakh Hybrid

Many commentators have attempted to make sense of today’s institutional reforms announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin. That the president wants these changes shows his intent to stay in power beyond 2024—when he is constitutionally required to step down after two consecutive terms—is beyond doubt. But the timing is key. State Duma elections will be held in 2021 and Russian elites need to be provided with a succession plan before that campaign begins.

One much-discussed, rumored solution to this problem has been to create a union state with Belarus – i.e., a new political system which would allow Putin to stay in power as the leader of both countries. But that scenario has serious downsides. First, the absorption of Belarus, a country of nearly 10 million people, would be economically costly and administratively complex. Second, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has strongly resisted yielding any authority.

A second solution would be to simply eliminate the constitutional limitation that forces the Russian president to stay in power for only two consecutive terms. Under such a scenario, however, Putin would still need to be reelected every six years, creating political risks in a period of growing social discontent and a stagnating economy.

Today’s announcement provides some clarity. The design seems to follow the recent power transfer in Kazakhstan from President Nursultan Nazarbaev, now referred to as the Kazakh scenario. There, key elements of presidential authority—such as control over the judiciary and the so-called power ministries—were redistributed from the presidential office to other posts, primarily the Senate (Kazakh upper house) and the Security Council. In particular, the Senate received authority to confirm the Chairman of the National Bank, the Prosecutor General, the Chairman and Judges of the Supreme Court, and the Chairman of the National Security Committee. Nazarbaev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, was then named the Chairperson of the Senate as to assure continuity of rule. Nazarbaev subsequently stepped down from the presidency and became the lifelong head of the Security Council. Thus, Kazakhstan today has at least three centers of power: the president, the  Chairperson of Senate, and the Head of the Security Council. The latter post, under Nazerbaev, enjoys control and veto power over the key decisions made by the other power branches.

Putin is proposing similar changes in Russia—some presidential authority will be redistributed from the presidency to the State Duma (Russia’s lower house) and the Federation Council (Russia’s upper house). In the future, substantive new powers may reinforce the Security Council, which already plays a de facto role similar to that of the Soviet Politburo. Putin’s goal is to avoid concentrating too much power under a singular institution outside of his control, lest it diminish his authority or even threaten his rule. In doing so, the Security Council may eventually become the power center of the political system and serve as the forum in which Putin, who will be its unelected chairman for life, can be the arbiter of Russia’s elites.

So who is to become Russia’s next President? It may well be Dmitry Medvedev, who emerged today as Putin’s deputy on the Security Council, after resigning from his position as prime minister. This makes Medvedev Russia’s de facto vice president. By contrast, Mikhail Mishustin, who is to be the next prime minister, is a technocrat unlikely to present any political challenge to Putin. His background in Russia’s Federal Tax Service, moreover, will help to bolster Moscow’s coffers, much needed in Russia’s stagnant economy. This situation resembles, in some ways, the 2005-2007 dynamic, when in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Putin also picked a bland technocrat with little political clout to become prime minister. The real succession candidates at the time, Medvedev and Sergey Ivanov, were deputy prime ministers. This precedent suggests that Medvedev, who proved his loyalty to Putin, may still have a political career in high office ahead of him, possibly including a return to the presidency in 2024. Operating outside of the political limelight, Medvedev will distance himself from the negative press surrounding Russia’s economic and social problems and may eventually allow for the revitalization of his relatively low public opinion rating.

This leaves the leadership of the parliament in question. Unlike Nazarbaev, Putin has not brought his daughters into the political realm and lacks a person, other than Medvedev, that he trusts unconditionally. Therefore, he will have to find a way to maintain indirect control over the parliament.

In the end, Russia’s revamped political system may come to resemble a version of Iran’s Guardian Council, with a permanent, unelected Ayatollah at the top. In this sense, Russia’s new institutional design may look even less democratic and less competitive than the Kazakh model.


Photo: “United Russia party congress” via the Kremlin under CC BY 4.0.

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Maria Snegovaya

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August 18, 2020

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.