Tony Kevin: The latest political news out of Moscow

Events in Moscow have moved on dramatically since the introduction of the new Russian constitutional proposals in January.

It looked then as though Putin intended to step down in 2024 at the end of his second successive six-year term, 2012-2024, and having completed 20 years as President (his first double term, 2000-2008, was followed by a 4 year term by then Prime Minister Medvedev). It seemed then that Putin was looking after 2024 to a stronger Prime Minister, a weaker President (not Putin), and Putin perhaps remaining in some sort of elder statesman role as head of a strengthened Constitutional Council.

Much has now changed. Today the Duma quickly approved a new proposed amendment to the raft of constitution change proposals it is considering ( and to be put to the Constitutional Court and then to national referenda on 12 April). The purpose of the new amendment is to restart the clock specifically for two men: President Putin and former PM Medvedev, to give them the option to stand for two further presidential terms, 2024-2036. But it is really about Putin, as Medvedev is politically spent.

Putin is now 67 . This amendment if it passes into the constitution could see him remaining President for another 16 years, when he would be 83.  That‘s unlikely but not impossible: he is a mentally and physically very fit man.

The amendment was proposed by Duma member and first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova, also prominent in recent Russian international Womens’ Day commemorations. Tereshkova supports  pro-family and pro-natalist policies, and a proposed constitutional amendment to disallow same-sex marriage. This is also Putin’s and the church’s declared view,  and it will probably be voted through in forthcoming referenda. The Russian electorate is conservative.

Putin supported Tereshkova’s amendment and the Duma duly voted it though , for consideration by the Constitutional Court and then public referenda, the need for which Putin emphasised.

What has changed Putin’s mind since January? Principally, in my view, Russian public perceptions of a worsening international environment, representing increased threats to Russian sovereignty and national security. I have no doubt that Putin’s government  has picked up on public  anxiety , and the majority public preference to keep the option open of Putin remaining President beyond 2024.

There are many pointers to this interpretation. Putin said in the Duma that he supports the newly proposed legislation for the good of the country and its security. The president is the guarantor “of the security of our state, of its internal stability — its internal, evolutionary stability,” he said. “And I mean evolutionary. We’ve had enough revolutions.”

Putin said he hoped that one day the institution of the presidency in Russia would not be “so personified in a single person”, but added: “that is how all of our history ended up and of course we can’t not take that into account”. Putin said, and this is the real dramatic  change from January:

“I believe and am deeply convinced that a strong presidential power is absolutely necessary for our country,”

Tereshkova expressed similar views in the Duma :

“Given [Putin’s] enormous authority, this [the very existence of an opportunity for the current president to be re-elected] would be a stabilizing factor for our society .”

She referred to some “unpredictable risks” to the country, meaning that “reliable insurance” is needed.

I would agree, as it would be seen from a Russian voter’s viewpoint. Consider recent events:

American active efforts to destabilise what it considers unfriendly governments continue around the world: Iran, Syria, China ( on the Hong Kong, Uighur and Covid19 disinformation issues), Venezuela.

Continuing American disrespect for Russia,  and for international law and UNSC-based international security. The admitted US assassination of Soleimani  was a particular shock to Russians , who see America now as an outlaw state prepared to do anything to get its way. Questions continue about how the Ukrainian  airliner was soon afterwards mysteriously shot down by a confused Iranian air defence as it left Tehran: some form of electronic foul play is suspected.

Russians see Western US anti-Russian interference  continuing in Ukraine, the  MH17 show trial in The Hague  being only the latest manifestation of a deep-rooted hostility . NATO plans  its largest-ever military exercises in the Baltic states. Aggressive and cruel( in Iran’s  case)  US-led sanctions against Russia and Iran, contrary to international law or the UNSC, continue.

Trump appears unwilling or powerless, as seen from Moscow, to set more positive international directions for his nation . There is no current prospect of US-Russian detente. US-China relations are worsening as US Sinophobia deepens. The forthcoming US election has renewed US ingrained Russophobia , with unfounded new allegations of Russian interference, and pressure from the US Deep State to lock all presidential contenders into anti-Russian positions in advance. There is no US-Russia arms control dialogue taking place.

It would look to most Russians as though their country needs to tough out what may be a very long period of many years of American-led active Western hostility by all means short of direct war, as the international balance of power inexorably moves in China’s and Russia’s favour. Russia’s decision to leave OPEC can be viewed in this light.

This may be why Putin has rethought his position, responding to a public demand not to rock the boat  at home too much as 2024 approaches . In an increasingly unstable and dangerous world beyond Russia’s borders, Russians seek insurance of a very stable politics continuing in their nation after 2024. They do not want to rule out the possibility of Putin remaining in power. There is no certainty that he will: but they want to keep that option.

Russophobes will find this analysis difficult to accept. To me, it makes sense.

Tony Kevin, former senior Australian diplomat and author of the travel memoir ‘Return to Moscow’ (UWA Publishing 2017), recently returned from his third independent visit to Russia in four years. He seeks to observe Russia-West relations without ideology or prejudice.

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