by James Corbett
July 18, 2020
Remember way back three lifetimes ago (a.k.a. the beginning of this year), when I wrote about Russia’s possible regime change?
If you don’t remember (or just need a refresher), Russian President Vladimir Putin kicked off 2020 with some bold moves, using his annual address to the nation’s Federal Assembly to “propose a number of constitutional amendments for discussion.” These “amendments” were not just administrative, either, but touched on some core issues, like forbidding top-level government officials from having foreign residence or citizenship and, infamously, repealing the clause limiting the president to two consecutive terms.
As you can imagine, there was much speculation at the time about what was going on, precisely. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Western pundits’ opinions converged on the idea that this was some sort of ploy by Putin to basically stay in power for the rest of his life (or at least a good chunk of it).
You might also recall that I was less sure of that conclusion, going so far as to state “it seems most likely that Putin will step down as planned in 2024 and the next president will have less power to shape the course of Russian politics single-handedly.”
Well, silly me. Looks like I was wrong. Maybe. You see, the Russian government held a national vote on the proposed constitutional reforms earlier this month and they passed with 77.8% support.
So what do the reforms state, specifically, and how will they impact the Russian Federation going forward?
Well, let’s look at some of the 206 amendments that have just been made to the existing Russian constitution, which represent the fifth set of reforms to the document since it was first adopted in the post-Soviet tumult of 1993.
> Article 79 and Article 125 have been amended to state that international law and the decisions of international organizations cannot override the Russian constitution.
> Article 125 has been amended to prohibit constitutional challenges to existing laws until “all of the other domestic judicial remedies have been exhausted.”
> The Russian State Council—established as a presidential advisory body by decree of Putin in 2000—will take on a greater role, including determining guidelines for domestic and social policy and setting economic development priorities.
> Changes to Article 67 allow for the creation of federal territories out of land areas that do not formally belong to any of the country’s 85 federal subjects.
> The amendments create a federal minimum wage of about $170 per month and guarantee that federal pensions will be adjusted annually to take account of inflation.
But, unsurprisingly, it is not these kinds of reforms that are being highlighted in much of the coverage in the unanimously anti-Russian Western establishment media. Instead, the reforms you are most likely to read about include:
> An amendment defining marriage as a “union between a man and a woman,” effectively banning gay marriage.
> A constitutional description of Russians as a “state-forming people” who are endowed with “faith in God” and unspecified “ideals.”
The changes that have received the most attention of all, meanwhile, are the ones pertaining to the term limits on a sitting Russian president.
Before these amendments passed, the president was constitutionally obligated to step down after serving two consecutive terms in office, but he was allowed to return after sitting out a term. This, of course, is exactly what Putin himself did, stepping down in 2008 to sit out the constitutionally-mandated term before retaking the presidency in 2012. If the constitution had not been amended, Putin would have had to step down again in 2024 when his second consecutive term in office ended. But the latest amendment will “reset the clock” allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms before bumping into the constitutional limit in 2036.
If you haven’t seen the headlines yet, you can already imagine them:
Et cetera, et cetera.
To those for whom “democracy” is still a synonym for political legitimacy, it doesn’t matter that the reforms were approved by 77% of the voters. No, as George Will will tell you in the pages of The Washington Post, the referendum was “preposterous.” Just take his word for it.
And now, as if on cue, Russia’s eastern hinterland of Khabarovsk is currently being “rocked” by protests, the Old Grey Presstitute herself tells us, echoing virtually the exact phrase employed by CIA mouthpiece Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.
Oh sure, the protests are ostensibly about the arrest of Sergei Furgal, the regional governor who is suspected of multiple murders, but, the New York Times assures us, this also has something to do with the “rigged” national plebiscite on constitutional reforms. Trust the Times.
Now, readers of this column know that I’m no fan of Putin (or any political misleader) and no fan of the mystical ability of a majority of the public to impose their will on the minority of the public. But anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see that, after the last four years of unhinged hysteria over the supposed Russian menace—from the Russiagate nonsense to the latest debunked Afghan bounty story—we all know that each and every claim about Russia in the Western establishment press is a lie. So it’s natural to take these claims about Putin’s thuggery and the people’s anger with a gigantic grain of salt.
Then what’s really going on here? Is there somewhere we can turn for a more balanced critique and analysis of the situation?
You might remember in my article on the constitutional reforms back in January I cited Gilbert Doctorow’s analysis. Let’s turn back to Doctorow. He’s an independent political analyst who has pushed back on the lazy “Putin as tyrant” tropes that the MSM has been using ever since Putin started badmouthing the US-led world order (the “wrong” sort of world order) back at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. And what’s Doctorow’s take on these latest developments?
Regarding the protests “rocking” Russia’s Far East:
I believe that the crackdown on Furgal is one more move by United Russia to establish a stranglehold on Russian politics ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections. The leadership of United Russia was surely behind the changeover of the constitutional amendments from a redistribution of power between the three branches of government, the clear intent of Vladimir Putin when he announced the initiative on 15 January 2020, into a ratification of Putin’s eligibility to stand for election again in 2024 and 2030, which is what the 1 July referendum was all about in the end. Surely the leadership of United Russia was also behind the removal of the leaders of the opposition parties in the Duma from nearly all television and media appearances for approximately three months this spring, till just before the referendum.
And regarding the results of the constitutional amendment plebiscite, which herald a turn into a more pronounced “cult of personality” surrounding Putin:
Indeed, one would have to be blind to miss the changes in Putin’s behavior since the start of the year, to miss the evidence that he is less in control of his entourage and the rival factions vying for influence over policy, more a captive of his supporters than ever before. The result is a pandering sort of populism that appeals to the lowest common denominator in the general population. When I say this is off-putting to Thinking Russia, I have in mind not the young, brash and me-me-too professional classes of Moscow and Petersburg who all have one foot in the West, but true patriots who have served their country well, are of a certain age and remember all too well what is a “cult of personality.” Moreover, I speak here not abstractly, but with the faces of my friends and acquaintances in Russia before me with whom I exchange thoughts on current politics from week to week.
Doctorow’s main point regarding the recent constitutional reforms is that, more than simply ensuring a Putin presidency for the next 16 years (providing he can win two more elections and maintain his health and faculties for the duration of his term), they bring two real worries to the fore: Firstly, that Putin is increasingly relying on a cult of personality that he himself is playing more and more into. And secondly, that these reforms simply kick the can down the road on the incredibly important question of presidential succession. Rather than giving clarity and establishing a path for some sort of stable transfer of power, Putin is merely increasing the likelihood that he will not even live out his term and a haphazard emergency succession will have to be cobbled together.
As usual, the reality of these constitutional changes is more complex than the flashy clickbait headlines of either the MSM or the alternative press would have you believe. Yes, these reforms are significant, assuming you’re a statist who believes in the magical democratic rituals and sacred pieces of paper that supposedly govern our lives or you’re an anarchist who recognizes that we live in a statist world where such things have importance whether they are legitimate or not. And yes, there are elements of Russian society that are displeased with these developments. But, as always, there are a host of domestic political factors at play, meaning that these issues are being used to pit elements of the population against each other for the benefit of this or that political party.
In the end, none of this changes the core truths:
1. That the neo-neocons now have their arch-bogeyman (Putin) safely installed for the foreseeable future, making a perfect foil as we descend into the (phony, fake, staged and manipulated) Cold War 2.0.
Still, the political puppet show makes for entertaining soap opera, doesn’t it?
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