iStock(MOSCOW) — Ever since Vladimir Putin announced a dramatic overhaul of Russia's constitution and the removal of his longtime prime minister and cabinet, Russians have been asking themselves a single question: What is Putin up to?
Since the Jan. 15 announcement, Putin hasn't slowed down.
He put forward a bill on Monday containing constitutional amendments and by Thursday the Russian Parliament had approved its first reading, 432-0.
A constitutional council specially formed to advise on the potential changes had not even convened before the amendments were submitted, fully written.
At the same time, the nation's new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who replaced Putin's longtime lieutenant Dmitry Medvedev, has spent the week forming his own government, the biggest political shakeup in a decade.
Some of Russia's most powerful officials have been shuffled into new positions, including Putin's powerful prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, who's been in office since 2006.
The moves have shocked both experts and ordinary Russians.
From the outset, many observers immediately interpreted the situation as Putin laying the ground to remain in power past 2024, when his presidential term expires.
But how these recent moves accomplish that isn't exactly clear. Russia's independent media outlets have been filled with articles from experts trying to puzzle out Putin's plan: Why now? Why so quickly? How do these changes add up to staying in power?
The Kremlin has said once Parliament approves the constitutional amendments they'll be put to a "public vote," but no one really knows what that means — or when it will take place. It could be in April.
Putin's political opponents, however, especially in the beleaguered democratic opposition, have objected strenuously.
On Wednesday, around two dozen prominent activists published a petition accusing him of carrying out "a special operation for illegally rewriting the constitution," calling Putin's recent moves a "coup" intended to remain in power for life. The petition so far has gathered more than 14,000 signatures.
Russia's constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms. Now 67, Putin is in his fourth term, taking advantage of a legal loophole in 2008 when he moved Medvedev into the presidency for a term and remaining as prime minister, not giving up any real power.
Putin could repeat that trick in 2024, but he's suggested he doesn't intend to, and among the proposed constitutional changes is one that limits future presidents to two terms, consecutive or not.
Some experts have said they believe the proposed changes show Putin intends to leave the presidency but hold on to power outside of it.
The leading theory as to how that would work includes revamping an obscure governmental body, the State Council, which Putin has said should now have a new role. The council, currently a forum for gathering regional governors, could be transformed into a preeminent body where Putin could assume a new "paramount leader" position, similar to China's Deng Xiaoping.
The other changes, including transferring more power to the parliament and to the courts, appears intended to weaken the office of the presidency, experts said.
In essence, Putin has carried out a preemptive coup against himself to maintain power, as Sergey Guriev, an economist who teaches at Paris' L'Institut d'études politiques, put it in an article for the Russian newspaper Vedomosti. The practice, known to political scientists as a "self-coup" or "autogolpe," was frequently used by dictatorial strongmen in South America.
But as more details about the constitutional changes have emerged, other prominent experts have questioned whether they in fact suggest something more surprising: that Putin wants out.
The proposed changes, they noted, do not in fact leave the presidency weaker than other bodies. Contrary to what Putin had suggested, the actual text of the amendments shows the president will retain the power to appoint the prime minister over parliament. Crucially, they also make clear the State Council would be subordinate to the president — whomever Putin chooses as his successor.
"Putin is not looking to dominate the system (although he will remain a key player), but rather to find a way to exert influence without risking any dangerous consequences for the state," Tatyana Stanovaya, a well-known analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center who also runs the political consultancy R.Politik, wrote in an article on Monday.
The changes submitted to parliament look more like an "insurance policy" for managing a successor, she wrote. They "are designed not so much to strengthen his own position after he steps down as president, but to create mechanisms for resolving differences with the future president, should they arise," Stanovaya wrote in another article.
According to this theory, Putin genuinely would step back while remaining protected in power, delegating domestic policy — Stanovaya and others believe he's bored with it — to his preferred successor. Putin would focus on international affairs and intervene only if he perceived a major unwanted change in direction.
For that, Putin most likely would head up a reformed State Council, but whether that will happen and how powerful it would be "directly proportionate" to how much control he felt he had over his successor, Stanovaya wrote, adding that it's likely Putin has chosen a successor — although that person may not be revealed for quite some time.
Supporting that theory was Putin himself this week, dismissing the suggestion he could remain as a supreme leader-like figure overseeing a successor. On Wednesday, he rejected the idea that he'd stay on as a "mentor," similar to Singapore's long-time dictator Lee Kuan Yew in the 1990s.
"If we have some kind of institution appear above the presidency, it can only mean dual power," Putin told a televised audience in Sochi. "That is an absolutely fatal situation for a country like Russia."
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