Interview with employee of the Polish Institute of international Affairs (PISM) Lehutsky Agnieszka (Agnieszka Legucka).
Polskie Radio: 4 July in Russia came into force amendments to the Constitution. What they actually changed?
Agnieszka Lehotska: Script “Putin forever” floated at a critical time for the Russian President time. It was one of the options for action to stabilize the situation in the ranks of the supporters of Putin and the ruling elites who depend on it. In such authoritarian systems like Russia’s potential transfer of power is a difficult time. Scenario life of the stay of Putin in power was one of many others. It deprives the Russian society sense that it is able to have any influence.
Rewrote the Constitution to ensure that the current President could remain in power, and in the political-business system, nothing changed. It was a clear signal addressed to the elites. The amendments do not automatically mean that Putin wants to rule until 2036, but now, four years before completion of his term, he decided to stabilize the situation in the Kremlin and to protect yourself from potential competitors. The tensions within the elites amid a changing public sentiment, by economic difficulties, the pandemic could wipe out all of what has been achieved by Putin. In the end, he decided to choose the scenario, the probability of treatment to which he has repeatedly denied. Thus he again (as in raising the retirement age) has deceived the expectations of society.
In my opinion, the steps that we have seen, are situational: they are designed to calm the mood for the next four years. The Russian leadership on the table is always a few scenarios, the development of events, they choose the one that seems to be popular at the moment. We think that in Russia think long-term categories, but in fact, there is often responding to immediate needs, in this case, it was about stabilizing the situation in the establishment.
— What consequences may result in the introduction of other amendments relating to the strengthening of the position of the President towards the government and the Prime Minister, innovations in social and historical sphere? Whether any of these changes are of particular importance?
— Amendments are a strong signal that tells which model the state will promote Russia as at home and in the international arena. This is to some extent the conservative government, which focuses on religion. In the Constitution there was a mention of God and emphasizes that marriage is the Union of a man and a woman that children should be educated in the spirit of patriotism, and the state will protect Russian language and culture.
It is also noted that of great importance both in internal and in foreign policy, acquire historical issues. We are talking about the promotion of the Russian version of history, and it will surely collide with other existing world views on Russia’s past. In this context, we can expect growing tensions in Moscow’s relations with Poland and other neighbors. A new interpretation of history, which is shared by the Russian authorities, contrary to the facts and anecdotal ideas about what happened. First of all it concerns the events of the Second world war.
We see that the Kremlin chooses the nationalist model, in which Russia, because of their history, should one of the winners of Nazism play in international relations a special role, including in modern times.
— Can in the future prove to be important other amendments?
— Important amendments relating to territorial integrity. Their introduction will have international implications. In Russia in 2014 for the “wrong interpretation” of the Crimea can get a fine or go to jail. Now, on the basis of the amendments the new provisions will enter into the criminal code, and the responsibility will be to attract not only Russian citizens but also foreigners. We don’t know yet how they will implement, but in any case, people who deny the fact of joining of Crimea to Russia and claim that it belongs to Ukraine will be punished. Proposals relating to the prosecution of foreigners who have already appeared in the Duma.
— Amendments significantly strengthen the role of the President?
— At the beginning of year Vladimir Putin has suggested to increase the role of Parliament, however, the amendments, for example, make it impossible to solve without him, who will become Prime Minister. The President also retains the right to appoint heads of key ministries: Minister of foreign Affairs, defence, internal Affairs. In addition, he can dismiss the Prime Minister, dismissing a government. Therefore, he has the opportunity to appoint a technical Prime Minister, this decision is transferred from the regional level.
— As now is the situation in the Russian regions?
— Last year’s events, especially large-scale protests in Moscow in the elections to local authorities, had its consequences. In the capital, the opposition tried to register independent candidates, but the signatures collected in their support were rejected. The people who came to confirm that they really supported one or another candidate, said on insufficient evidence…
In this situation, it can be resent.
Members of the opposition and the activists, who failed to run due to the fact that of the signatures they collected were declared invalid, have adopted such a strategy: they are called upon to vote for any candidates who do not represent the “United Russia”.
— It was a sign of protest.
In the end, last year the local authorities of different levels got many Communists and members of LDPR party Vladimir Zhirinovsky. This does not mean that the level of support for these forces has increased: Russians to protest, voted for any politicians who had a chance of being elected, but has not been associated with the “United Russia”.
After the approval of the amendments to the Constitution, the Kremlin began to prepare for regional elections to be held on September 13. It turns out that are not related to the “United Russia” are people who are chosen by the Russians, faced with challenges. It is, for example, the Governor of Khabarovsk territory Sergey Furgala, who is accused of the crimes of 15 years ago. It is said that he stood behind assassinations of his political rivals. The charges he has decided to make now, when the Central government strengthened its position due to the amendments. Meanwhile, the residents of the Khabarovsk territory began to take to the streets and protest against the actions of the state leadership.
— They want to demonstrate their disagreement.
— Vladimir Putin has strengthened his position on the regional authorities, they are partly deprived of autonomy, as their first include in the so-called unified system of public authority. This is a pretty General concept, but the experts clearly indicate that his appearance was intended to prevent a repetition of last year’s scenario. We are talking about strengthening of control over elections in local authorities in the preparation of the soil for the scheduled September vote.
— So, the Central authorities are working to subdue regional, and amendments to the Constitution — only the first “ring”?
— The Kremlin has tried to convince Russians and the world that the people of Russia supported Vladimir Putin as the leader of the state. However, his power is based on a number of systems in lower level, including regional and local leadership, who during the pandemic had to take on more responsibility. At the same time it does not receive such a level of authority which would allow us to deal with threats. Most regions began to grow the debt, they did not receive funds from the Central budget. The level of support for United Russia has been declining for years, people see it. Putin’s main concern now is to maintain political superiority not only in the centre but in the regions.
— On the one hand, the amendments are a reaction to problems of regional management and turn it into a single system of power, and with another — the Kremlin sees the danger in finding a regions independence.
We see the steps that allude to the fact that the Kremlin is not going to concede that it is guided by the Leninist principle of “once given power will not give up ever”. This is a serious problem for the Kremlin. I believe that elected Putin, the script undermines his credibility. Nuts, which are screwed in from 2012, will have to tighten even more. Putin will be forced to strengthen control over society, fearing that although, according to official data, almost 78% of Russians voted for the amendment, a significant part of society considers them to be a usurpation of power.
— As the company refers to the amendment and personally to Vladimir Putin, is very important. Recently, his rating decreased.
Information campaign aimed at the citizens approved of the amendment was quite effective in the sense that “zeroing” terms of Putin hid behind other themes. In the media there was discussion of the question, what actually are the changes in the text of the Constitution. People protesting against them, aware of what they are introduced, understand that Putin is “one package” with the other amendments.
Offered to the citizens a set of social guarantees, a model social conservative state, as well as philosophical positions, was close to them. If they answered “no” to the question “do you approve the amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation”, they would have lost those amendments, which are close to them, that is, items relating to the indexation of pensions, assistance to families with children, protection of historical truth, and so on.
During the campaign Putin said very little. Only after it announced its success, and that in fact all voted for the fact that he always remained a Russian leader. It is not so. Some of the amendments reflect the aspirations of the Russians, so they supported them, however, people are tired of Putin. Such a low rating, as it is now was not since the beginning of Putin’s presidency: he never fell below 60%, and now, according thought of as independent “Levada-center”, the President is supported by 59% of Russians. The level of confidence fluctuates at around 20-25%. This is a very low indicators showing that many voted for the amendment, but not for Putin as a leader and leader. At the same time, the facts are that voting for Putin is due to lack of alternatives. Citizens realize that regardless of who will govern, nothing will change.
— Are there any implications of amending the Constitution?
— I think the time has come in which we will see how the government and society face off. In Russia, the authoritarian regime, but nevertheless the government relies on public confidence. Putin will have to restore it. On the one hand, it will be necessary to prevent different kinds of protests, and on the other to soften the frustration of the decisions taken. He will have to engage in social transfers, which he promised at the beginning of the year. How this happens on the background of the pandemic, it will be seen.
Not to say that Russia’s economy was on the verge of collapse. Some difficulties arose, but Moscow has a financial cushion, and the macroeconomic situation looks not so bad. The Russians have large foreign currency reserves and a national welfare Fund.
Russian authorities hope that associated with a pandemic crisis will end soon, oil prices will return to previous levels, then social programs will help soothe the mood of society. Now it is planned to allocate some funds to avoid the explosion of public discontent, not connected with political issues.
— On the one hand, the Kremlin will crack down, to strengthen repression, and with another — to invest in social programs.
— Welfare state, which offers to build Putin, should become a response to people’s expectations. We are likely to see more benefits for large families or retirees, the largest group of voters. The Russian government will try somehow to calm a part of the society and one youth, to silence with punishment. In recent months, has deployed an unprecedented campaign against journalists. They are accused of extremism and of supporting terrorists. Persecution has become an exceptional scale even by Russian standards.
— So, the protests will be put down.
— Recently, many focused on domestic events, wondering what the consequences on the international stage, they can turn around, do not decide whether Russia is trying to demonstrate to citizens its great power status at some time to take new steps abroad.
While the scenario of “Putin forever” does not pose risks to the international situation. The current President is not trying to restore its position by such actions as the annexation of Crimea, and refers to the decisions on the level of their country. However, close to Russia is increasing tensions. In Belarus there are protests in the Caucasus clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moscow may decide to strengthen their influence.
— It is hoped that before the described scenario with the game Imperial muscles will not come, however, unfortunately, in the case of Russia it can not be excluded.
Is one possible scenario of forming the image of a strong leader through interventionist policies. While these actions we do not see, but in this area Russia is able to surprise us. We all remember the circumstances of the annexation of the Crimea.