Like many of Vladimir Putin’s moves, the one he pulled off on March 10 felt like an unexpected plot twist in a thriller movie. Just two months earlier he had announced plans to amend the Russian constitution, sending domestic and foreign observers into frenzied predictions about his succession plans for when his current presidential term expires in 2024. Many of them envisaged him as some of kind of a shadow ruler or “father of the nation”, supervising an obedient successor.
Then, in a lightning move on March 10, he opted for a scenario so crude it was previously dismissed by most Russia watchers, not least because it contradicted assurances from his entourage. In the morning of that day, the world’s first woman in space and current Russian Duma member, Valentina Tereshkova, put forward a proposal to allow Putin to run for another two presidential terms after 2024, which was to be included in the package of constitutional amendments the parliament was discussing. The president was promptly informed of these proceedings and he immediately made his way to the Duma, where he delivered a speech approving Tereshkova’s proposal.
Afterwards, the parliament members voted to pass it. Next, the Constitutional Court will have to approve the amendments after which they will be put to a popular vote in a national quasi-referendum on April 22. Few doubt there will be any obstacle to that. Putin’s move was so brazenly out of line with everything he had said before that even the hardened Russian opposition appeared at a loss for words minutes after it happened. Soon, however, a key member of Aleksey Navalny’s movement, Leonid Volkov, called it “a coup d’etat, technically speaking”, while activists launched pickets under St Vladimir’s statue near the Kremlin’s walls. On the same day, the Moscow mayor’s office introduced a temporary ban on public gatherings of more than 5,000 attendees – ostensibly due to coronavirus threat.
Clearly, the local authorities are taking measures to prevent a major outburst of public anger in the streets of the capital. The last time Putin decided to prolong his rule by twisting the Constitution, he had to face an unprecedented wave of protests which rocked Moscow for several months in the winter of 2011-2012. In the end, he survived the protests and remained a rather popular president – not just because of repressive measures and political manoeuvring.
Putin has been the embodiment of Russian majoritarian consensus on what Russia should be like. This consensus is, of course, fluid, but the Kremlin has worked hard to maintain it. It has been very sensitive to polling data and quite refined at manipulating public opinion for which it has employed an army of spin doctors to spread propaganda and dress political moves in right-wing conservative ideology. Apart from that, a unique alignment of internal and external factors has helped keep this consensus afloat for so long. Putin presided over the greatest improvement in quality of life in the memory of middle-aged and older generations – although one can argue about his personal role in achieving it. These people remember the horrors of World War II, the chronic deficit of quality goods and services in the late Soviet times and the turmoil of the 1990s and are quite alert to the risks of losing Putin’s trademark stability.
There is also the crisis of role models. The situation today cannot be more different from what it was in 1991 when millions of Russians embraced the Western model of governance and economic prosperity. Over the years, Putin demonstrated that he can offer higher standards of living without the risks that come with political liberalisation. Today, Russia’s per capita GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity is on par with that of EU’s ex-communist members. At the same time, Georgia and Ukraine continue to provide a convenient example of the troubles Russia could face, were its people to push for political freedom through a colour revolution.
Indeed, the failure of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution [to deliver on its promise of undoing the oligarch – very much aided by both the West and the Kremlin – the subsequent rise of the far right, and the continuing war in the east have given Putin’s alternative – economic and political stability under authoritarian rule – quite a boost. The continuing crisis of Western liberal democracy, manifested in the rise of Donald Trump and the success of Brexit, has also sown doubts among Russians about the need to pursue the Western model. The reluctance of the West to welcome Russia into the fold by offering it to integrate into the EU and NATO has also contributed to this feeling. A scarecrow Russia appears to be much more politically expedient for Western politicians than a democratic one.
But these pillars of the popular consensus surrounding Putin are getting increasingly shaky. For several years already, polls have been showing a tectonic shift in the attitudes of the Russian population. The perceived need for stability has been overtaken by the demand for change. The nationalistic fervour surrounding the annexation of Crimea has also worn off. Today, Russians want normalisation with Ukraine and the West, while hostile attitudes are receding.
There is a also new generation of youth who have held daring unsanctioned protests and participated en masse in Navalny’s regional offices across the country. Their main motivation to protest is that they have seen no other Russia than Putin’s in their entire lives. Putin fatigue is settling in and, within a few years, there will be no more tricks up the president’s sleeve that will allow him to keep the majoritarian consensus intact. Russia’s hive mind will move on towards new ideas and new personalities.
Any change in the above-mentioned factors, particularly the resurgence of liberal values in the West and a defeat of the far right, can trigger that shift in Russia. But even without them, the life cycle of the Putin brand will naturally expire sooner or later, and the Russian president knows that all too well. The constitutional changes will allow him to keep his options open and avoid being seen as a lame duck, but they will not stop the inevitable. The best thing Putin could do for himself in the next four years is generate more positive legacy in the form of big infrastructural projects and groom a reliable successor to replace him in 2024. As a calculating man, he should know that his personal risks are lower if he leaves before it is too late than if he strives to retain his leadership post forever.