A Tsar is Born: The Consolidation of Power in Putin’s Russia

Limitation of civil rights in Russia has become increasingly systematic as Putin appears less concerned with keeping up democratic appearances for the international community. In fact, he promoted legislation that would facilitate his consolidation of power to the detriment of international organizations within the Federation. In January of this year, President Putin signed a bill that dramatically reduced the ability of NGO’s to conduct oversight of the Russian government. International NGO’s are weakened because this bill forces them to register as Russian NGO’s and obtain financial independence from their head offices. The bill also makes such organizations ineligible for most foreign funding. Despite widespread international opposition due to the restrictive nature of this bill, it was signed largely unchanged. Enhanced control over NGO registration allows the Kremlin to remove or even deny access to organizations it considers disloyal.

Holding on to Power

Thus, we see that Putin has consolidated power within the government and limited the rights of his citizens, while weakening the organizations best able to monitor these activities. Having accomplished these things after six years in office, one can only imagine how Russiawould change should Putin remain in power for an even longer period. Fortunately, the Russian Constitution provides for a two-term limit, preventing presidents from serving more than eight years consecutively. However, it must be realized that these limitations are not absolute. In other words, they simply prevent one from serving for a third consecutive term, making it possible for a president to return to the Kremlin after a four year “break.” Supporters of the Putin Administration claim that he has no intention of serving a third term, consecutive or otherwise. These views were reinforced when Putin himself maintained that “the danger of a return to monopoly of power does not exist.”[xxxii] Nevertheless determined to “find his place in the ranks” after completing a second term as president, Putin will obviously fill a position of considerable authority. How such a position can be secured is the focus of this paper’s final section.

Despite Putin’s insistence that it would be inappropriate to extend or remove term limits through a constitutional amendment, this method would be the most effective means of extending his reign. Indeed, having examined the changes Putin made since coming to office, it seems that he has no difficultly acting against the spirit of the Constitution and actually extended term limits for regional governors though “such extensions of their tenure violate regional charters and republican constitutions.”[xxxiii] Evidently term limitations carry little weight with the Russian president. As early as 2000, researchers at the Heritage Foundation found that Putin actually proposed a referendum to extend each presidential term from four years to seven and could easily have recommended an amendment to allow a third consecutive term.[xxxiv] Should both changes take place, Putin could remain in office until 2018.[xxxv] These amendments would not be particularly difficult to obtain given the Kremlin’s influence over the Federation Council and the State Duma.

However, let us assume that past trends with regard to term limitations will not be followed and Vladimir Vladimirovich actually opposes constitutional amendments to extend his tenure. These unlikely circumstances would not mean that this formidable political figure will simply yield all power and fade into an endless Petersburgsunset. On the contrary, Putin could retain considerable power without seeking term-limitation amendments specifically. For instance, an entirely new constitution could be drawn up should the current Russian-Byelorussian Community become an official union. Should such a process occur, extending presidential term limits would be seen as just one of many changes to Russia’s governing document. Even if term limits were not changed per se, Putin could argue that he has the right to serve another eight years as president of the new federation. After all, though he already served for six years, the addition ofByelorussia would result in the creation of a country over which he had technically never governed. Theoretically, Putin could give himself a “clean slate” and only begin counting his years in office from the dateByelorussia joined the Federation, practically doubling his time in power without addressing the limitations specified in Article 81 of the 1993 Constitution.

Should Byelorussian President Lukashenko decide against a union with the Russian Federation and a new president occupies the Kremlin in 2008, Putin could still remain a powerful national figure. Since legislation adopted in 2004 forced Russians to vote for parties and not individual candidates, the ardently pro-Putin United Russiaparty dominates the lower house of parliament, known as the State Duma. In fact, United Russia currently holds 305 of the 446 seats that comprise this body, with the remaining 141 distributed among five other national parties.[xxxvi] Putin could very well move into the legislature following a second term as president and, in view of his party’s dominance, would have no difficultly securing the position of Speaker. While the powers enjoyed by Speaker of the State Duma are considerably less than those of the President of theRussian Federation, this transition would keep Putin involved in government affairs. Such an arrangement would also allow him to maintain his vast Moscow-based power network and leave him ideally placed for a third bid at the presidency after a four year “break” in Parliament. It is interesting to note that election of parties and not candidates would insulate Putin should the people ever grow tired of his political presence.