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Power transition in Russia: political and legal aspects

The fact that Putin never intended to let go of his power in 2024 raised no doubts. The change of government and the announced constitutional reform only added certainty to the way he had chosen to continue his reign over Russia. This is the path of life-long rule in the shape of absolutist autocracy. The urgency of power transfer is due to the threatening situation with Putin’s popular ratings and the unwillingness on the part of Belarus to consent to creating a Union State. The option isn't off the table, remaining as an alternative.

Power transition in Russia: political and legal aspects
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At the moment, there are three options for Putin to continue his rule: as head of the State Council, speaker of the State Duma, or head of government. Other alternatives could be updated if required. Among them is the revival of the Soviet Union in the form of a union of Slavic republics, which isn't completely abandoned – only postponed due to the obvious issues with the project's first stage, setting up a Union State. Unable to resolve the problem of power transit by moving to a geopolitical expanse beyond Russian borders, which Moscow believes don't end anywhere, Putin set about turning Russia into a strong fortress.

Ultimately, the choice of an operating option may be influenced by the results of the new technical government's work and public reaction to constitutional amendments or the elections to the State Duma.

Key parameters of Transit 2024 have been laid down. The amendments to the Russian Constitution, proposed by Putin on January 15, 2020, and the change of government show that the "nation's leader" decided to bring autocracy back to Russia in its direct and somewhat upgraded version, rather than in a current, "publicist" form. The absolute autocrat must be above dependence on any kind of popular will. Therefore, Putin is unlikely to be elected president any longer. He will become head of the State Council with unlimited powers and unlimited term in office. He will stand above all branches of power, more precisely, above all units of a single and monolithic power vertical, which will now also include local governments, that is, his powers will stretch from top to bottom. In Russia, power belongs to those appointing and dismissing top security chiefs and controlling cash flows, regardless of a title. The new power construction allows Putin to retain power in Russia forever and make this power total.

The Kremlin is studying the most optimal way to keep Putin in power. This is about emergence of a new constitutional body, redistribution of powers between president and government, as well as options for a union state. In this sense, Putin's address is a test of public reaction. Most likely, the Kremlin plans to follow the path of strengthening the State Council and providing it with more authority. At the same time, the presidential republic is being liquidated, while a number of powers are being transferred to parliament, and a president's role is becoming purely decorative. The issue of finding a president successor for Putin is therefore  no longer relevant.

The emphasis in Putin's address, put on the new role of the State Council and the narrowing of presidential powers indicates that the "Kazakhstan scenario" was chosen as the primary one.

Vladimir Putin, as evidenced by his address and rather vague constitutional proposals, clearly seeks to preserve maximum freedom of maneuver in rewriting the Constitution to ensure that the incumbent ruling class retains power in Russia for the coming decades.

Constitutional changes voiced by the Russian president include transforming the State Council into a constitutional body, boosting powers of the Federation Council, ensuring a stronger role of parliament, which, in accordance with Putin’s proposal, will be appointed by government, and a number of other structural changes. In general, it's about "cutting the powers of Russia's regions and municipalities and further expanding the "power vertical." In other words, it's about ultimate control. Instead of outlining the constitution of a country able to do without Putin at the helm, the Russian president proposed amendments offering a few loopholes to preserve own power.

Transit implies a new "social contract" – an exchange of social benefits for the legal consolidation of the elite's monopoly on governing the country.

There is also a possibility that Article 81 of the constitution (specifying presidential terms) will be repealed. If the entire article is removed, the word "consecutive" is also gone. It is possible that the part of the article concerning limitation of a president's cadence to two terms could be canceled. No constitutional assembly needs to be convened to this end. Two-thirds of the votes in the State Duma and three-quarters –in the Federation Council is all the move requires. Most likely, Putin believes that this will have nothing to do with him.

Putin has shed no light on his plans whatsoever. Instead, he opened Pandora's box, full of options. The uncertainty that has arisen is leaving the political elite anxious, helping Putin not to become a lame duck, instead remaining the core around which the whole country revolves.

Putin is dealing with the issue of power transfer by shifting the center of power to another position with the intention of taking it. This requires a large-scale reform of the formal political structure. All roads must lead to the chair of head of the State Council or the Federation Council with new powers, whose constitutional functions are yet to be laid down. Also, legal authority could be "spread evenly on a plate", that is, some kind of checks and balances could be set up between different parts of the existing power vertical so that the "father of the nation" could take up a position of an arbiter between them.

Foreign policy

In the international arena, Kremlin behavior won't change for the better. Radicalization of initiatives, both political and security-related, will be highly likely given the declared prevalence of national legislation over international law. This may entail escalation in Donbas, in an attempt to shift focus from numerous defeats in international courts, including in the upcoming MH17 trial in The Hague. The security factor can also be exploited to indirectly pressure international institutions, which is Putin's favorite trick to raise stakes. Regions that can potentially be targeted are not only the existing "hot spots" where conflict has been instigated by Moscow, but also the entire Black Sea and Baltic regions.

Putin’s proposal to allow the Federation Council initiating dismissal of Constitutional and Supreme Courts members is essentially about weakening the judiciary. In fact, this means that any judge of the Constitutional or Supreme Court could be removed arbitrarily, by a political decision, which is unacceptable. Just as unacceptable is the proposal to abandon the rule of international law. It's about European conventions on rights and freedoms, first of all, European conventions on the prohibition of torture and those on fair trial. That is, Russia seeks to put itself, through its political leadership, beyond obligations concerning rights and freedoms of citizens. Here a legal conflict arises regarding the priority of international law – that's the first chapter of the Constitution. It cannot be amended or repealed by the Federal Assembly, the Federation Council, regions, or in a referendum.

Future Russia will be an outcast in the global community. But such rogue status is already being praised as valor, as "restoration of true sovereignty." A response to existing sanctions and a pre-emptive measure against future sanctions is further "nationalization of the elite" in the form of a constitutional ban on taking government posts by those who have obtained any documents allowing stay in foreign countries.

Realizing that it's impossible to improve relations with the U.S. and fearing new sanctions, the Kremlin will try to avoid conflict with Washington, while building up relations with the EU. Moscow will also continue to interact with countries that are in opposition to the United States, developing cooperation projects under sanction pressure. In the case of the most severe restrictive measures on the part of the West, the Kremlin will keep promoting the system of transferring financial notifications to the Bank of Russia, intending to involve as many rogue state actors as possible. 

Domestic policy

The ongoing transit will move at a very high pace. Putin will be taking own steps just as fast. The goal is simple – to confuse Russian society, to prevent people from focusing and realizing what's happening. It is possible that the Constitution will be quickly amended without any referendum, while the power structure will be reformatted just as quickly. And in the end, Putin will form such a constitution and configuration of power, within the framework of which he is going to rule for life, surrounded by his faithful minions, who will be strengthening his rule. Everything is being done quickly so that society does not figure out how to react.

Something that everyone suspected over the past years has happened. There will be no change of power in 2024, as it has become obvious to everyone. The rush shows that the Kremlin fears possible rating drop, and that the transit will not go according to plan. So Moscow seeks to complete all constitutional changes before the summer, which the State Duma has already announced. This suggests that Russia could theoretically see early parliamentary elections. The next parliament convocation, if it's suddenly different from the incumbent one, may walk back on these constitutional changes, who knows? Therefore, early parliamentary elections are possible.

Leaving the executive branch will allow Putin distancing himself from expected failures in internal social policies, as well as from violent suppression of protests, which are believed to rise amid economic failures and deterioration in living standards, including as a result of pension reform, as well as the environmental situation in many regions across Russia.

There are no prerequisites for positive socio-economic developments in Russia. In the future, part of the fiscal burden will fall on the population. This will entail higher prices, lower incomes, and further deterioration in the socio-demographic situation. In this matter, the reference to the social program in Putin's address to the Federal Assembly is of a declarative nature, or rather an outright lie. Putin is once again buying loyalty of the Russians. In the 2000s, it was stability and security in exchange for freedom. Then the government paid with relative welfare for same renunciation of freedoms, this time civil, rather than political ones.

Looking at the list of members of the working group on constitutional amendments, which Putin created immediately after voicing his address, we can already predict key trends in upcoming changes. Among the 75 constitutional reformers, there is chieftain of the All-Russian Cossack Society Nikolai Doluda, awarded the Defense Ministry medal "Of the Return of Crimea", which climaxed in the accession of the peninsula to the Russia. Crimea SOS NGO named General Doluda among those responsible for the abductions of Crimean Tatars. Also, there's two-time Olympic champion Elena Isinbaeva, actor Vladimir Mashkov and pianist Denis Matsuev. Co-chair of the working group, Senator Andrei Klishas, who authored a number of bills aimed at suppressing human rights and freedoms, is a matter of even more concern. Among his bills were the ones on "fake news, "insulting the authorities", the "sovereign Internet", and on "media that are foreign agents". Being in capacity to rewrite the Constitution, these people are unlikely to resist temptation so they will try to take out from the text everything that was laid down back in 1993, when the Constitution was drafted for the country that was seen as part of Europe.

The set of measures proposed in Putin's address to the Federal Assembly confirm that it's about power transfer by a modified Kazakh scenario – there will be redistribution of functions among senior officials, the State Council and the Constitutional Court. These are additional "monitoring platforms" from which one can ensure that Putin's successor doesn't grow into becoming too "independent". Which of the viewing platforms will Putin choose to move to? The text of the address allows for various assumptions. This may be an updated State Council or a strengthened parliament. It can be assumed that in 2024, there will be a new president, albeit kept under control of these "monitoring platforms".

Putin is creating a second arbiter post within the system. In Russia, the essence of powers of the head of state is not about declaring a state of emergency or deploying troops somewhere, but about being a supreme arbitration instance. By creating the post of chairman of the State Council as a body with constitutional status, Putin is creating another arbitration instance. By doing this, he is destroying the state as such. Even that bad super-presidential state, which is now in place, will be destroyed once everyone gets an opportunity to choose an arbiter.

It is assumed that the public will positively accept the ban on the third or fourth presidential term. Now they won't worry too much voting for Putin's formal successor. In Russian society, the demand for power change has matured, so Putin is play along these lines as much as he can. This was also the case in Mexico, where following a thirty-year reign by Porfirio Diaz, people were so tired of the lack of change in power that they launched a revolution. After it was over, a ban was introduced in the new constitution for a head of state to hold office for more than one term. This ban has been in place for a hundred years already.

Serious threats to the foundations of Russia's constitutional system:

- A proposal to create a mechanism on Russia's non-compliance with its international obligations;

- An actual destruction of the principle of federalism as distribution of powers is being proposed in favor of the center, while the role of regional representative bodies will be infringed;

- Independence of courts, which isn't in line with the foundations of the constitutional system;

- Discrimination of citizens, since they are being deprived of a right to choose a place of residence or stay, contrary to the right to move freely;

- Transformation of the State Council, in which Putin will occupy a leading position, effectively neutralizes the significance and powers of the Federation Council. Therefore, a serious blow is set to hit basic principles of the constitutional system.

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