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So much for Putin’s promise he’d abide by term limits. Here’s what happened.

Will this latest twist keep him in power through 2036?

- March 15, 2020
Information about online voting for Russia’s March 2024 elections, on a sign in Moscow’s Brateevo district, March 8, 2024 (cc) Brateevsky via Wikismedia Commons.

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, contributors Sam Greene and Graeme Robertson explain the bizarre political “reset” in 2020 that cleared the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to run again in 2024. While few doubt Putin will be reelected in March 2024, this analysis offers clues to the extensive political maneuvering to keep Putin in power indefinitely. The analysis was originally published in the Washington Post on March 15, 2020.

Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova gained instant fame in 1963 when she flew a solo mission on the Vostok 6. There are perhaps few things you could add to a résumé that includes “First Woman in Space” — and yet she may have added infamy to fame in 2020, with a proposal that would launch President Vladimir Putin on a record-setting mission of his own.

Now a parliamentarian for the ruling United Russia party, Tereshkova on March 10, 2020, proposed the State Duma — the lower house of parliament — “reset” Putin’s presidential terms, allowing him to run again after his fourth term as president expires in 2024. It was an idea that had been mooted before in the media but pooh-poohed by Putin’s spokespeople.

Only this time, the speaker of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, called Putin to get his opinion. Putin said okay. And that was that.

This announcement stunned Russians

Within about 20 minutes, the biggest question in Russian politics — who would succeed Putin in 2024, after nearly a quarter-century in power — evaporated. Russians and Russia watchers were stunned.

For the past two months, everything seemed to be going in a quite different direction. In January 2020, in a national address broadcast even on the side of buildings across the country, Putin promised two key political reforms: limiting the president to two terms only, and transferring power from the Kremlin to the Duma.

Neither of those promises has made it into the final text of the constitutional reforms, which in fact look likely to increase the power of the president. On Mar. 16, 2020, in its first sitting since the amendments were passed, the Russian Constitutional Court gave its seal of approval. What Putin’s reforms provide, then, is a strengthened presidency that Putin himself will be allowed to occupy until 2036.

Why the change?

Of course, all of this could just be another Putin ruse designed to throw observers and Russian politicians off course. Putin appears to love these diversions and the drama that accompanies them. In 2007, for instance, he waited until the last moment to reveal his decision on who would be his successor as president, not because he’s some wily KGB agent who likes to play 3-D chess, but because it makes sense. Once decisions are clear to the players in the game, they inevitably begin to calculate profits and losses, and those who end up on the losing side mobilize to overturn the decision. It’s destabilizing and it gets in the way of achieving any other policy goals he might have.

It seems unlikely, though, that Putin is bluffing. A highly public about-face on the key promise of his constitutional reforms would seem a pointless endeavor, unless he was intent on putting it to good use. Indeed, when he came down to the Duma to give his assent, he said as much: “I’m certain there are still a lot of good things we can do together,” he declared.

The timing, of course, is odd. The ostensible impetus of the constitutional reforms — to put Russian politics on a stronger institutional footing — is still fresh in people’s minds. Maybe the prospect of Putin really leaving office, and the uncertainty around whatever role he might play in the future, created more jitters than he’d planned for — especially against the backdrop of covid-19 and oil price war with Saudi Arabia. Or maybe this was the plan all along.

Will Putin’s gambit work?

So what now? In the short term, Putin faces the challenge of making his decision to become essentially president for life stick. Decades of polling suggest Russians like elections and the trappings of democracy, but these latest moves make the veneer of democracy appear thinner than ever before. Russians have also shown themselves willing in the past to protest in large numbers, when the violation of their electoral rights has been too obvious to ignore.

Putin is probably betting that making this change four years ahead of the next presidential elections means there will be little reaction. People generally don’t protest about things that are so far in the future, and by the time that future arrives, Putin’s re-re-re-reelection will be old news. For the moment, there’s plenty of discontent online, but whether it will spill into the streets remains doubtful.

In the medium term, continuity is king — and that, in fact, may be the point. As long as he stayed in public politics, effective political power was always likely to follow Putin, whatever his formal title. On one level, making Putin president forever merely formalizes the situation.

A long-term payoff is far from certain

But in other ways, last week’s change is very significant. It was long a point of pride in Russia that the constitution adopted in 1993 constrained political action. Whatever faith people still had in that idea has been shattered, and the personalization of power seems virtually complete. The world of 2008 — when Putin stepped away from the presidency to follow the guidelines in Russia’s constitution — is gone.

That may turn out to be the problem. Putin’s power, as we argue in our new book on Russian politics, “Putin v. The People,” depends heavily on his relationship with the Russian people and his ability to handle public politics for a corrupt and stolid ruling oligarchy. Maintaining high levels of support in the country gives him the appearance of inevitability, without which a politician who does not come to power through elections has no guarantee of surviving to the next one.

As we show, Putin and his administration fight vigorously to hold on to support. There will be many challenges to come, not least in solving the problem of economic stagnation that has afflicted Russia for a decade. The sense that Putin might eventually leave office made it easier for some people to tolerate the lack of progress. Now that he’s staying, he actually needs to deliver.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the Russian Constitutional Court’s approval of the amendments on Monday, Mar. 16, 2020.

Samuel A. Greene is reader in Russian Politics and director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.

Graeme B. Robertson is professor of Political Science and director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They are co-authors of Putin v. The People (Yale University Press 2019).