Since Vladimir Putin was re-elected as President of Russia in 2018 questions have arisen as to what role he will play in the Russian government once his presidential term ends in 2024. In his State of the Nation address last month, President Putin seems to have provided answers. Calling for constitutional reforms that will alter the existing power-structure (1), Putin is ensuring his continued dominance in Russian politics beyond his presidency and contributes to further deteriorate and erode the Russian democracy.
Democratic erosion refers to the process in which elected leaders undermine the established democracy from within, often using the democratic institutions. Constitutional amendments are one way in which executives have been known to weaken democracy and enhance their own power and influence—it is this process we are currently observing in Russia under President Putin.
On January 15th, Putin addressed the Russian nation in the yearly State of the Nation address. In his speech, Putin expressed his plans to alter the power structure of the government by amending the constitution. The proposed changes will transfer powers from the president to the State Duma, the Russian parliament, ultimately weakening executive power and enhancing legislative power. Among other changes, the president will be subject to term limits and lose the power to appoint the prime minister, as well as other government ministers (2).
Generally, it is considered beneficial to the state of democracy when the legislative branch is empowered and the executive branch is restrained. Putin himself argued in his speech that the amendments will enhance democracy and better the governance of the Russian Federation (3). Nevertheless, numerous experts are approaching the reforms with skepticism. While the constitutional amendments institute additional checks and balances and a more comprehensive division of power, the reforms are perceived to further erode the Russian democracy by facilitating Putin’s ability to maintain power beyond his presidential term (4). Fear has also arisen that the proposed amendments have the potential of transforming Russia into a one-party state, thus further undermining the competition necessary for a democracy to exist.
President Putin has presided over the Russian Federation for two decades and has arguably contributed to the failure of democratic consolidation in Russia (5). Drawing upon the argument presented by Levitsky and Ziblatt in their book, How Democracies Die, Putin’s leadership style appears consistent with their characterization of an authoritarian politician. Since Putin came to power in 2000, various instances of curtailed civil liberties, tolerated violence, and fierce resistance and denial of opponents’ legitimacy and ability to compete in elections, have made international headlines. Though frightening, it is perhaps not surprising that Putin is now initiating reforms that will preserve his grip on Russian governance. The proposed changes will limit the power of Putin’s successor, and open for Putin’s continued influence over Russian affairs, likely occupying a role within the newly empowered State Duma or State Council (6).
The actions undertaken by Putin closely align with several theories put forward by scholars studying democratic erosion. Particularly interesting is it to evaluate Putin’s recent announcement in light of Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg’s book How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy. In their book, the two authors identify several pathways exploited by executive leaders to ensure their continued governance which further contributes to the deterioration of democracy. One of these pathways is constitutional amendments that serve to disadvantage the opposition and favor the incumbent. Coupled with Ozan Varol’s paper Stealth Authoritarianism, in which Varol outlines how autocratic leaders utilize the existing legal mechanisms to institute change, we get a clear idea of how Putin’s amendments are likely to undermine Russian democracy.
Most, if not all, constitutions can legally be changed. Putin’s proposed amendments are thus not illegal but actually in accordance with the legal mechanisms established by the constitution itself. However, it can be argued that if a constitution is amended in ways that limit democracy, the established institutions are abused for undemocratic purposes. Effectively, Putin is legally undermining democracy. He is exploiting the democratic institutions and subverting democracy in order to empower his prospective role in the Russian government and weaken the power and ability of his successor.
Some scholars suggest that the proposed constitutional amendments are just the beginning of Putin’s plan to retain power beyond 2024. Additional reforms are expected in the months and years ahead, likely contributing to further deteriorate the Russian democracy. Following the State of the Nation address, Putin’s primary political opponent, Alexei Navalny, was quick to criticize the reforms and express his belief that Putin will never truly concede power and that the amendments are all targeted towards ensuring Putin’s continued control (7). The status of the Russian democracy appears to be in a state of decline, and the central question of whether Putin will ever voluntarily concede power remains to be answered.
Gershkovich, Evan. 2020. “In Wake of Putin’s ‘Coup,’ Russia’s Top Opposition Leader Refrains From Action.” The Moscow Times, <www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/01/20/putin-coup-opposition-leader-navalny-a68973.>
Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” Working Paper.
Krastev, Ivan. 2020. “Vladimir Putin’s New Orchestra.” The New York Times. <www.nytimes.com/2020/01/27/opinion/putin-government-change.html>.
McFaul, Michael. 2018. “Choosing Autocracy: Actors, Institutions, and Revolution in the Erosion of Russian Democracy.” The Journal of Comparative Politics, Vol. 50, Nr. 3. <https://doi.org/10.5129/001041518822704971>
Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742.
Roth, Andrew. 2020. “Russian Government Quits as Putin Plans to Stay in Power Past 2024.” The Guardian,<www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/15/putin-calls-for-constitution-changes-that-would-weaken-successor>.
Treisman, Daniel. 2020. “Why Vladimir Putin Is Shaking up Russia.” CNN, <www.cnn.com/2020/01/15/opinions/putin-constitutional-changes-treisman/index.html>.
Borodinova, Victoria. 2017. “Vladimir Putin .” Pixabay, <https://pixabay.com/illustrations/putin-the-president-of-russia-russia-2980748/>.