The Russian constitutional game is really three-card Monte, and its latest round reminds us that Vlad plays it with consummate skill.
Even many Russians can’t really keep track of the ‘money card’. But Westerners labour under the additional handicap of their own constitutional experience, making them seek analogues where none exists.
The more knowledgeable among them realise that the Russian constitution isn’t quite like any in the West, the Russian Duma is largely a bogus parliament, and the meaning of political nomenclature (‘president’, ‘prime minister’ and so on) isn’t exactly the same as in the West.
But few commentators are ready to replace the adverbs ‘quite’, ‘largely’ and ‘exactly’ with ‘at all’, ‘totally’ and ‘remotely’. Their viscera go on strike when dangled before their eyes is the picture of a constitution that’s nothing but an elaborate charade designed to dupe the credulous in Russia and especially abroad.
If anyone ever had any illusions on that score, they should have been dispelled in 2008, when Vlad displayed his virtuosic sleight of hand by shifting Article 81 of the Russian Constitution.
Paragraph 3 of that Article says that no one can serve three consecutive presidential terms. I emphasised the word ‘consecutive’ because it’s the only one that matters.
Had that word not been there, Vlad would now be enjoying his purloined billions somewhere warm – that is, if allowed to get away with his money and his life, which, given the vagaries of Russian politics, wouldn’t have been a foregone conclusion).
As it was, he hung the presidential shield on his PM poodle Medvedev and continued to exercise dictatorial powers as prime minister. Come 2012, Vlad reclaimed the presidency and kicked Medvedev back into his old chair.
In parallel, he extended the presidential term from four years to six, effectively giving his dictatorship 12 more years of phony legitimacy. However, since that period expires in 2024, Vlad has had to run his nimble hands over the cards again.
Thus his poodle Medvedev yapped that he and the rest of the government were resigning, not to impinge on the presidential power required to enact sweeping constitutional changes. Anyone who has ever seen Medvedev as an impediment to the exercise of said power doesn’t really understand Russia.
The well-trained poodle got the bone of a newly created post, that of Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, chaired by Vlad himself. The latter then hinted that the post of president would become purely ceremonial, with the real authority vested in the office of prime minister, appointed directly by the Duma in its customary independent fashion.
Hypnotised by Vlad’s fleet fingers, Western commentators try to guess what it all means, without arriving at the right answer: nothing of any significance whatsoever. Their problem is that they approach the problem from the wrong end, inductively rather than deductively.
Induction is a trusted method of political analysis, but it’s useless in Russia. Deduction is more productive, proceeding in this case from an ironclad a priori premise: Putin will never relinquish power voluntarily. His tenure will expire only when his life comes to an end, natural or otherwise.
Once we’ve realised this, all those constitutional shenanigans become reduced to mildly amusing irrelevancies. Each of those has been amply covered in the press.
Putin may indeed transfer all power to the office of prime minister, which he will then occupy. Such a seemingly sideways move has a precedent in Russian history, provided by Vlad’s role model, Stalin.
On 6 May, 1941, he appointed himself prime minister, having before run the country as only Secretary General of the Communist Party. Many commentators think that seemingly meaningless step was taken as a prelude to a Soviet assault on Europe, for which Stalin wished to take full credit.
Be that as it may, it stands to reason that changing the dictator’s job description may indicate a shift in policy.
If, for the sake of argument, Putin is planning another act of blatant aggression, such as an attempt to occupy the rest of the Ukraine, he may wish to pull the wool over the observers’ eyes by being able to accept the credit for such a mission if it succeeds or pass the blame if it fails.
Another possibility is that he may vest de facto presidential powers into the office of Chairman of the Security Council, keeping his trusted poodle in the same place he always occupied. Or else he can appoint himself Chairman of the Duma, with the power of appointing Medvedev or another underling as figurehead president or prime minister.
Yet one possibility hasn’t yet been mooted: Vlad could restore monarchy, with himself on the throne as Tsar Vladimir II. This isn’t as preposterous as it sounds.
Putin has been trying to refashion the Russian ethos by fusing some elements of Romanov rule, Stalinism and Orthodoxy into a quasi-monarchic entity, the modern answer to Mother Russia with her imperial reach based on her enhanced spirituality.
Perhaps he finds that the time has arrived to get rid of the prefix ‘quasi-’ and add finishing touches to the picture drawn in the sand of mendacious propaganda. By appointing himself tsar, Putin might be able to present to the world the image of a squared circle, taking the credit for that mathematical feat.
Confused by his speedy hands, Western observers have trouble pinpointing the ‘money card’. Hence they don’t realise that the cards are marked. The money card isn’t the queen, king or any other denomination.
It’s a criminal and dangerous state uniquely formed by a homogeneous blend of secret police and organised crime. Its chieftain, Putin, can’t be second-guessed because his power is arbitrary and not structured in any way a Westerner may recognise.
So the president is dead, long live the tsar? I don’t know. No one really does.