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While Putin’s move to possibly remain in power beyond 2024 strengthens his hand, we should not see him as an all-powerful leader, but rather as the Russian elite’s mediator, says Russia expert Tony Wood.

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Greg Wilpertt: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that he is in support of a constitutional change that would allow him to remain president of Russia until 2036. Putin has already served as President or Prime Minister of Russia for 20 years now. The existing constitutional term limit provision prevents Putin from running for President again when his current six year term expires in 2024. However, in January his party proposed a series of ambiguous constitutional changes that unleashed speculation that he was planning to remain in power beyond 2024. Now the cat is out of the bag. A last minute change to the constitutional reform proposal included a provision to reset the the two presidential term limit clock at the end of Putin’s current term. Here’s what Putin himself had to tell Russia’s Parliament, The Duma, on March 10th

Vladimir Putin: Technically today we could lift the Presidential term limits, especially because such precedents exist in other countries including our neighbors. There are no term limits there in the election procedure of a Head of State. In principle, this option would be possible. But on one condition, if the constitutional court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and the main provisions of the constitution.Greg Wilpert: Joining me now to analyze Putin’s recent maneuvers is Tony Wood. He’s a member of the Editorial Board of The New Left Review. Also, he is the author of the book, Russia without Putin, Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War. Thanks for joining us again Tony.

Tony Wood: My pleasure Greg.

Greg Wilpert: So how do you interpret the Putin supposedly reluctant acceptance of this resetting of the term limit clock? I mean, what does it mean for Russia and its political system?

Tony Wood: So the last few months have been really a choreographed process that we can now see that has unfolded. First of all, Putin announced in January this package of ambiguous constitutional reforms that you mentioned. And then earlier this week, the suggestion comes apparently spontaneously from Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, who is currently a member of the Russian parliament that we could in fact reset the term limit clock and puts in, could therefore extend his rule to 2036. I think one of the things that this reform does, apart from allowing Putin to run for another several years, is actually a multiplies the options available to him. And I think we do need to bear in mind that that Putin’s real purpose in doing these reforms is not per se to stay in power indefinitely himself, but to increase the range of options available. And I think up until now, the problem has really been what is he going to do in 2024 will he stay or will he go?
And that problem been obsessing the Russian political elite for the past several years now. And we thought he had answered that question in January with this constitutional reform, but actually it seems to have clouded the picture. So this is him really clarifying the picture for the elite saying, I could stay around until 2036 if that’s what you want. But within that we can’t exclude the idea that he could at some point say, actually, you know what? I found a viable successor and I’m backing out of this. So I don’t think we should see this as being firm intention on his part to stay until 2036 it’s just that, that’s one of many scenarios that is now available to him.

Greg Wilpertt: Now Russia has a long history of powerful leaders from the days of the Tsars and then of course, the leaders of the Soviet union, especially under Stalin and now with Putin. Now talk a little bit about the history, this history and what does it indicate? Does it mean that this has to do with Russian culture that that Putin has this very strong position is essentially, it looks like he’s strengthening it.

Tony Wood: Yeah. I think there is to a certain extent, the cult of the strong leader, the strong hand is the term in Russian that people use, but I think we can get a little bit too carried away by that in the West certainly. I mean during the Cold War there was a lot of scholarship focused on the Kremlin and what was happening there. And then 20 years later we had to then reevaluate everything we knew because actually Russian and Soviet society was a lot more complicated than the whims and desires of one man. And this is certainly true today that Putin himself is obviously a very powerful individual in a very centralized system. But there is a lot going on in Russia in nearly power circles and I think we’d really need to think about Putin not as a kind of all powerful puppet master but rather as a central kind of arbitrating figure in a kind of interplay of elite interests.
And so the reason he has been there for so long is that he is a convenient figure for all of those different interest groups within the Russian elite and he is able to resolve conflicts or to nullify them in a way that other figures could not. And I think this is also true by the way of previous Russian leaders. I mean obviously Stalin is a different case. He actually nullified conflict by killing people. But a figure like Brezhnev, for example, who was around for a very long time was convenient to the Soviet nomenclature elite as the person to have at the top. So I think we need to see Putin really in those terms that he is a strong leader, but actually because he is a strong intermediary figure rather than he’s laying down the line to everybody below him in a kind of vertical chain.

Greg Wilpert: Now there’s no doubt that what happens in Russia also happens in the international context. As a matter of fact, the Kremlin and Putin cited unspecified international threads as a reason for the constitutional change. What are these threats and what role do you think that they play in creating such a potentially long lasting precedence?

Tony Wood: I think certainly the Russian economy is not doing very well. I think the current fears of recession especially, I met the coronavirus epidemic, the collapsing oil prices, another major factor in the health of the Russian economy. And so Putin has clearly seen that that his announcement in January, which somewhat muddied the waters now, looks like it actually could multiply in stability within Russia and that’s the main thing that he wants to avoid. So this is his way of putting a dampen on all of that possible speculation and reassuring people that there will be stability. That’s the message he’s trying to convey. And I think the other important factor behind this mention of crisis is that he’s really trying to provide some legitimacy for what he’s doing in a global context. And I mean, one of are the examples he cited, interestingly, was that over Roosevelt saying actually there were no term limits in the US until the 1950s and Roosevelt stayed in power for three terms because there was a global economic crisis happening in the 1930s.
And make of that what you will but it’s interesting that that’s really a legitimating tactic on his part again, rather than a pre-thought through ideological commitment on his part. I think we have to see this in terms of how he’s trying to play with the population as a whole.

Greg Wilpert: Now this constitutional change is still going to be approved in a referendum that is scheduled for April 22nd. Now the change though also includes a ban on gay marriage, which some speculate was included in order to boost voter turnout. Do you think that is true and if so, will it work or will the opposition actually have an opportunity to perhaps stop it?

Tony Wood: Yeah, I think that there’s definitely some truth in that actually the package of constitutional reforms that is being presented is actually quite a mixture of things. I think it’s both the change in the term limits and changes to the eligibility of candidates for the Presidency. There’s changes to the powers of the President and the Prime Minister is quite a lot of major things. And then within that additional elements have been thrown in including this ban on gay marriage and also much more, there’s a mention of God in the constitution for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union and even before. There is also a reference to the Russian people as the state forming people, which seems like it’s actually a kind of gesture to the Russian nationalists sector opinion. But then there are also quite sort of, you could say progressive social commitments in language at least and for example, there is a commitment to a, a certain level of the minimum wage and to and and maintenance of the social welfare state in Russia.
And so I think part of the purpose of throwing in all of these measures is actually both to motivate people to come out and participate and vote as you say, but also to make it very, very difficult for people to reject the package as a block. This is a complicated set of things to just say yes or no to, but that is what voters are going to be asked to do. I think another important factor to bear in mind, which is quite technical, but I think important is that this is not the vote that you mentioned on April 22nd is not a referendum. It’s called nationwide voting, which is a kind of euphemism that they’ve adopted recently in Russia because a referendum, according to Russian law, has a whole set of regulations that apply to it in terms of campaigning, in terms of airtime on TV, in terms of being able to adopt a position for and against and be allotted space on national television.
And the one thing the Russian elite doesn’t want to do with this package of reforms is to allow a really serious open debate and be obliged to do that legally. So this is why they’ve called it nationwide voting rather than a referendum. And so what is going to happen I think is that they’re going to boost turnout with these kind of gestures to different parts of Russian society that will be motivated by them and hope for a large turnout that gets them over the 50% barrier in terms of turnout and then a majority will think, yes, this is absolutely fine and most of the measures are not controversial and unfortunately I think in rush today, the ban on gay marriage, while there will be a certainly a strong and embattled and in many ways heroic lobby of opinion that thinks that that is a horrific thing to put in a constitution, I think that will probably not be enough to get the whole package turned down.

Greg Wilpert: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. We’ll see how it turns out. I was speaking to Tony Wood, author of the book, Russia Without Putin, Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War. Thanks again, Tony for having joined us today.

Tony Wood: My pleasure, Greg. Thank you.

Greg Wilpert: And thank you for joining the Real News Network.

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Studio: Taylor Hebden, Will Arenas
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