15 July 2020

Will Russia and its new Constitution be externally more dangerous? If not, why does it need a „Yalta-2”?

Cristian Eremia

The internal policy maneuver of Kremlin’s leader regarding the Constitution’s amendments aimed at preserving his absolute political power developed according to the plan. As debatable as Putin’s electoral technology would be, the result is important for the long-term political power projection in the state. Everyone already knows that the Russian leader prefers only the electoral results that have very high percentages to offer him the legitimacy he needs, in front of the Russian elites and politicians, for his afterwards decisions and actions – “the power directly handed by the people”. Now, when things are settled down, Putin started to establish state’s strategic developments targets until 2030. On the foreign plan, Putin wants to take the lead and to organize a “Yalta-2” summit, to negotiate a new global order with other four nuclear powers.

Image source: Profi Media

I. The fake power transfer from Kremlin and the preservation of the absolute political power.

So, the Kremlin leader set up another big project, managing to develop a referendum to amend the Constitution during the pandemic. This time also, the  central power networks have mobilized through the local power tools a great majority of the Russian people, symbolically called by some circles “Putin’s 3.0 majority”, to underline his third big electoral victory. Moscow has announced that almost 78% of the votes were “for” Putin’s amendments. The most important project Putin developed after 20 years of being the undisputable leader of Russia was now validated. It is important because one of the changes foresees that Putin can get another two mandates in Kremlin, until 2024, which means he can run until 2036.

President Putin was stating that the Constitution’s amendments will only be made only if he will get a majority of the votes.  That’s something Putin has already used the Russian public and the foreign audience with – votes in absolute majority to get the entire legitimacy and freedom to run the state as he wants. The vote was boycotted by the active Russian opposition (then sanctioned by the regime through force), and the constitutional amendments were criticized by the juridical experts as being at least contradictory and that would only favor Putin’s interests. The Russian social media were full of images showing ad-hoc polling stations installed on cars and buses parked in parks, football fields or tents. The local observers realized the vote was just a formality, as it was basically impossible to control how correct the referendum was. Some local voices were even suggesting that these things will lead to a sudden decrease of Putin’s popularity in society, but how are these things important now?

This amendments[1] bring back a central conservative and nationalist elements in line with president’s determination, announced in 2021, to focus on the undeterred defence of what he calls “Russia’s traditional values” – supporting the Orthodox faith and the traditional family’s values, the opposition against the gay minority, the condemnation of liberalism and democracy following the West’s political and societal model. These things and many others are reflected in the amendments package which has more than 200 modifications of the Russian Constitution, which were supported by a promotion campaign made by the state mass-media and the pro-Kremlin social media pages.

Despite warnings over a conservative future for Russia, the amendments give Putin the opportunity to broadly implement his plans for Russia, the option to run for two more terms, legal immunity in case of his resignation, and gives him the possibility to preserve his political power, including a potential leadership role of the (re) constituted and consolidated State Council. Putin started this process just in time, announcing the constitutional changes in a speech held on January 15th, when he surprisingly changed the Medvedev government. On March 10, the parliamentarian Valentina Tereshkova, Russia's first female cosmonaut proposed a wording that gave Putin two more terms, which was later upheld by the Constitutional Court. A day later, the document was approved by both parliamentary chambers. Given the results of the referendum, Putin signed the decree with the respective amendments on July 3rd, so that from July 4th, Russia has practically a new Constitution. And, of course, no "power transfer" has been made in Kremlin.

After announcing the results, Putin thanked the "responsible" citizens for the vote, because Russia would have much more to do to modernize the state. "In many ways we are still very vulnerable ... we need internal stability and time to strengthen the country" - asserted the Russian leader, adding that there are many unsolved issues, many people often face injustice and that "life shows that we often under-perform, that we need to act ... more precisely, more organized and efficiently".  

Internally, Putin is again active. He acknowledged that during this pandemic year it would be unrealistic to claim that major national projects would be resolved. After the meeting of the Council for Strategic Development, President Putin ordered the Presidential Administration (July 13th), "based on the results of the vote on the Constitution", together with the Russian government, to draft a presidential decree to set national development goals by 2030. The plan will have to take into account the corrections made to the national projects for the current year, as well as the recovery plan after the Covid-19 crisis. In fact, for a long time, Putin has led the Russian government towards technocracy - in other words, politically neutralized, to which he has sent "by delegation" administrative and operational management tasks of internal affairs. This policy was publicly expressed, so Putin could be "absent" from coordinating anti-street protests, or from the direct management of the fight against Covid-19. This has caused confusion internally and externally, within the political and analytical circles, who believe that Putin has lost his internal authority, and his fall from power is just a matter of time. Now it is clear that there were erroneous calculations.  

II. Putin’s Constitution, the state construction and foreign policy.

The Russian leader insisted on the Constitution amendments that would be necessary to ensure the "full sovereignty of the state". Firstly, it imposed a paragraph for the provisions of international law and treaties, as well as the decisions of international bodies, to be able to act on Russia’s territory only in so far as they "do not contravene the Russian Constitution".    

Secondly, some constitutional requirements have been established for those who will hold critical positions to ensure the security and sovereignty of the country, namely for the heads of Federation’s members, for parliamentarians, federal ministers, heads of other federal bodies, judges and prosecutors, in the sense that they cannot have foreign nationality, or a document that would allow them to have permanent residence in the territory of another state. Even stricter requirements have been imposed on presidential candidates (such as residency in Russia for at least 25 years, absence of foreign citizenship, etc.).

Calling on the fact that Russia is a huge country and each subject of the Federation has its own features and problems, Putin has managed to increase rulers’ responsibilities in drafting and making decisions at the federal level. The " State Council" role in Russian statehood was strengthened by the Constitution - a body "revived" by the president, which includes the head of state, the presidents of the two parliamentary chambers and all the heads of the Federation's subjects. New provisions have emerged for the State Duma (lower house) to introduce broader powers for the appointment of the entire government.  

President Putin considers all his proposals to be a deep change in state-building and the Russian political system. The Russian leader was extremely firm, urging Russia to remain a strong presidential republic. As such, the president retained the right to set government duties, as well as the right to remove the prime minister and federal ministers from losing political confidence. At the same time, the president will directly control the armed forces, all central force structures and the entire law enforcement system. He will therefore appoint the heads of all force structures, including central and local justice institutions.             

III. Kremlin wants a “Yalta-2”. One to be in line with the Russian revisionism and neo-imperialism

President Putin recently brought back to people’s attention a personal initiative to hold a "Yalta - 2" summit, whereat he would invite the political leaders of the US, China, France and Great Britain. Putin cleared the ground for this initiative at the very beginning of the year, when he declared that he was "convinced that it was determined ... a serious and direct discussion about the basic principles of a stable world order", without giving details about the protagonists. He indirectly called on the five world nuclear powers to "show political will, wisdom, courage" to take the necessary steps to ensure strategic stability and eliminate the premise of a global war.

Some voices point out that this has become an obsession that is not based on tangible elements of world politics, especially since, after 75 years, the world's security architecture has obviously changed. In 1945, heads of state gathered in Yalta to divide the world and their spheres of influence, to establish the borders of the world's states after a great world conflagration. Russia is now seen as an aggressor state and not as a victorious country in a war. In addition, after the Ukraine moment, in 2014, Yalta has another special connotation for the European security system and beyond. However, Putin's insistence can be interpreted as an attempt - very important for the Kremlin's political ideology, to impose Russia, through an abuse of history, as a "victorious state" in the undeclared war for the change of world order and international relations.

It is unlikely, however, for the initiative to bring Putin what he wants to actually happen. There are several reasons why some leaders will not accept Yalta this year. For example, President Trump is stepping in for the presidential election. Then, what leader of the five powers would be willing to enter into such a story designed to give greatness and validation of Russia's power, given that no one wants a strong Russia? Symbolically, however, the idea may have a certain external grip if Putin changes the wording, by organizing a summit with the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, in another city and with a more permissive agenda. And is this fall proves to be inappropriate for such an event, then 2021 spring could be more attractive. The agenda and common vocabulary of such a summit should be chosen with great diplomacy, as it is very unlikely that the other powers will agree to set up a new world order given the current circumstances of international relations. Especially the USA, even if another president would be installed in the White House.  

There are other assessments as well, supported by several interested analytical circles, that highlight a huge challenge that Putin’s Russia would launch over the global security. For example, the Ukrainian analyst, Alexander Demchenko, accuses in his article, "Russia starts the global war", that, while the whole world is trying to forget about a world war, Putin wants to remind us of it. It is also recalled that President Putin clearly stated, not long ago, that “Everything changes: from the global balance of power and influence to the social, economic and technological bases of the life of societies, states, entire continents. During the past eras, such changes have almost never taken place without major military conflicts, without a power struggle to build a new global hierarchy".

In other words, does Putin want to suggest that a great world conflict would be inevitable? And that Russia is ready, that can it be more dangerous than ever and will not back down from such a thing? Or maybe he wants to suggest a start based on revenge, because Putin also wants to bring back to Russia the memory of the "world victory" and as many of the territorial war acquisitions lost in the collapse of the Soviet bloc as possible. Anyhow, this is where the idea of ​​the Russian leader to organize "Yalta-2" in a 5-members format came from. In order to peacefully but politically conditioned delimitate the areas of influence globally by the main current powers, which Putin appointed unilaterally. Given these conditions, however, global peace would be difficult to impose and manage, as the other international player states would not accept the global policies designed at the table of the five, where they were not even invited.

Now, that things are clearer in terms of Russia’s long-term power, Putin needs a Yalta-2 to place his country on a central position in a new global security architecture and to make an older dream of his true, to rebuild the Russian empire to the size it once had the former-Soviet space. Out of a more daring conclusion expressed in different DSM articles, Putin has gradually shaped Russia’s geostrategic profile, preparing it to get to another phase, the establishment of a new Russian empire. Therefore, Putin will intensively do everything possible to reach his strategic objectives for Russia and also secure his “historical inheritance”, becoming a threatening state for other countries, including for the former-Soviet states.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] The creation of a new Constitution will make Putin a kind of Founding Father "- noted the political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann, from Moscow, although in the twentieth century a tradition of Soviet leaders was already formed - and not only, to amend the Russian Constitution. Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, and then Boris Yeltsin - Russia's first president since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, made full use of this mechanism, and Putin resorted to this political maneuver for the first time.