Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin Pool Photo / AP

It is not a secret that Vladimir Putin is the de facto leader of Russia, and it is doubtful to expect any changes in his status quo by the end of his presidential term in 2024. For the past 20 years, Putin has faced no equivalent-to-his-greatness rivalry for the post of president or prime minister. According to the existing Russia’s Constitution, the president is barred to maintain his/her position after serving two consecutive terms, which Putin technically did back in 2008, but that does not mean the game is over for him, or somebody will swiftly put an end to it. How and with whose help can Putin maintain his eternal legacy in Russian history? 

All this leads us to January 15th 2020 — Putin’s first public announcement of constitutional changes — which took place at the annual state-of-the-nation speech. Talks of the uncertainty and concerns resurfaced in the domestic and international discourse, regarding such reforms, as they will set the precedent over the Kremlin’s long-awaited political transformation, and the future vector of Russia’s development. One of the prime examples is the supremacy of Russia’s new constitution above the international law. Originally scheduled for April 22nd, the referendum was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the grand Victory Day parade, celebrating the Great Patriotic War (the WWII), on the 9th of May. Despite the fact that amendments were passed by the parliament, Putin nevertheless needs the symbolic support of the people, to reassure himself and everyone of his credibility in running 2024 elections, as well as to instill the conservative ideologies within the constitution. 

Meanwhile the ratings for many Western officials have risen with battling the pandemic, the ratings for the Kremlin’s Vertical went soaring. According to the Levada Center, Putin’s ratings slumped from 80% in 2014 to 59% in April 2020 and plateaued in May, making it a record-low approval since the 1990s. Conversely, the support for the regional governors has been reflected in the increased ratings. In the past, the officials’ approval ratings were more or less dependent on the commodity prices, the military greatness and the symbolic victories at home and abroad, i.e the annexation of Crimia. To reverse the altered post-pandemic image, V. Putin ordered to lift the lockdown measures, which was taken with opposition from a number of regional leaders, and to host the 75th Victory Day parade on June 24th, so to mobilize the pro-regime support, and to temporarily erase the thoughts of stagnating GDP and falling household income with the historical patriotism. 

Following the bombastic parade with 14,000 troops from 13 countries, the referendum is being held from June 25th to July 1st. The proposed reforms by Putin mark a historical moment in Russia’s institutional transition, as it is expected to oversee changes in almost all branches of the government, with a particular focus of limiting the power of the executive branch, i.e the president, and granting more independence and legislative power to the Federal Assembly, i.e the Federation Council and the State Duma. Moreover, the future executive branch will be restricted to serve a maximum of two terms. In other words, it is evident that the system is in the process to become less dependent on one person. Given this, the position of key actors and the balance of Putin’s Vertical, comprising different fractions of the elite group, might also foresee possible alterations. One of the prime examples, depicting motives of a political transition, is the resignation of Medvedev, a long-time proxy of Putin, from the post of prime minister. His successor is an unpopular, yet an efficient technocrat, Mikhail Mishustin, who is the former head of the Federal Tax Service.  

Noting this, the Kremlin’s intentions are clear regarding the determination to preserve the viability of the current political system (assuming the hypothetical departure of Putin from the presidency) and secure the institutional branches against the potential threats from the Western or domestic upheavals. The only question at stake is the future of the “power vertical.” The phrase takes root from the 1990s and is often credited to Vladimir Putin’s presidential approach, notably the vertical hierarchy of authority with a strong influence at the very top. However, one common misconception about Russian politics is to think that Putin oversees all the cabinet’s agenda or that the elite is closely united around the top. According to Carnegie Moscow Center, the current elite group is quite fragmented and is essentially divided in two ideological camps, the conservatives, i.e. the protectors, the implementers versus the pro-progress group, i.e. the political technocrats, Putin’s aides and friends (from ex KGB colleagues to corporate magnates). There’s also a fifth group in the Kremlin’s elite — Vladimir Putin’s retinue, i.e. personal secretariat, Kremlin bodyguards, a group of loyal people Putin interacts with on a daily basis. 

The source of conflicts between the different elite tiers does not only stem from the notions of spheres of influence and ownership, but rather it sprouts from the ideological concept. This necessarily brings the implications of a potential “schism,” within the Kremlin’s elite, thus posing a difficulty in the future inter-political unity, which is necessarily a premise for an area of vulnerability of the system. Fundamentally, “the protectors” present themselves as an ultimate and a growing source of conflicts within the cabinet, since this group shares common characteristics, such as a pro repressive and conservative view on the regime, anti-Western values, conspiratorial and aggressive discourse, etc. On the other side there are technocrats who mainly provide a stabilizing force in the vertical by remaining politically neutral and are responsible for the state’s progress and well-being. Overall, the majority of the ministers and deputies belong to the technocratic niche. Consequently, when devising policies/agenda, a room for disagreement systematically arises over things, like modernization vs traditionalism, liberalisation vs oppression, dialogue vs pressure, etc. Hence, focusing on the mitigation of the ideological-driven conflicts is imperative in times when the political transition is in a full motion. 

As it was mentioned previously, the referendum seeks to address the very foundations of the principles of the separation of power, notably the redistribution of power between the legislative and executive branches. Contrary to the contemporary presidential republic, the constitutional amendments seek to bring new standards, such as deputies, prime minister and executive ministers are appointed by a president on a condition that the candidates have been approved by the State Duma. Furthermore, other powers given to the president can be executed only following the consultation with legislative bodies, like the Federation Council. Such a council can as well elect and dismiss officials from the posts of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts. One of the interesting reforms is the embedding of the State Council within Russia’s constitution. It is not known yet to what level of authority or prominence such a body will be given in the constitution, but it is clear that the council will work closely with the president, with an advisory objective to assist the president in the interaction with other governing branches. Given so many reforms, this opens many doors for Putin to remain in the high tiers of influence, supposing his eventual resignation from the presidency. Possible scenarios vary from the president of the State Council, a strong prime minister, to securing a position of a lifelong leader of the Security Council, a model put into the practice in Kazakhstan a year ago. 

The new decade for Russia began with an endorsement of the constitutional proposals, a defining moment for the Kremlin’s institutional and political transition. The government is heading towards empowering the legislative branch, and building the system that will be more autonomous, and less dependent on one individual at the very top. It is important to reinforce that such changes are feasible as long as the contemporary regime is contained. Thus, it will be imperative to consider a system that will be able to withstand all kinds of domestic and foreign adversities, notably in a situation when Putin’s decades of leadership reach its expiration date.