Among many arguments for constitutional changes presented in the wake of the 2020 campaign for the popular vote in Russia, there was the idea that “cementing” Russia’s political landscape for the sake of the regime’s durability would serve as a tool for improvement of quality of governance. This argument, in a way, followed the essential point of Mancur Olson describing many autocrats across the globe as “roving bandits” with their short-term time horizons and incentives for predatory behavior. To what extent may the constitutional extension of the time horizon of Russia’s authoritarian regime contribute to conversion of Russia’s state officials and top managers from the “roving” to the “stationary” model, in Olson’s terms? On the basis of previous research, I argue that the nature of Russia’s political regime—electoral authoritarianism under personalist rule—prevents such a trajectory of further evolution. Indeed, the set of constitutional changes adopted in Russia in July 2020 is likely to preserve bad governance as a mechanism of maintenance of politico-economic order, as intentionally built and developed during the post-Soviet period. While certain technocratic solutions for Russia’s governance, aimed at “fool-proofing”, may avert the risks of major disasters, under conditions of durable authoritarianism the use of these devices will not result in major advancements in the quality of governance. Rather, they may contribute to further decay and aggravation of the numerous vices of bad governance.
Viewed through the lens of social policy, Russia’s 2020 constitutional reform codifies existing priorities without addressing the issues that have fragmented the meaning of social citizenship. Placing these changes in theoretical and historical context, we identify the core causes of inequity in the social welfare system, the sustained gap between state promises, and Russians’ lived experience. Our case studies highlight the sources of shared social grievances and the obstacles to national collective action that maintain stability in the facing of increased localized protest actions. We conclude by emphasizing the importance of observing the opposing forces of continuity and change in Russian politics as they define and redefine the meaning of social citizenship.
Although 4 July 2020 saw the coming into force of constitutional changes in Russia, this was far from the end of the story. Most clearly, these changes to the 1993 constitution required implementation, including through amendments to, and the writing of new pieces of, federal legislation. In part, this process was the mundane work of legal bureaucrats, tweaking and creating many pieces of legislation to reflect the new constitutional text. But the implementation process also reveals much more about the broader constitutional reform project. This article reviews the implementation process, discussing its complexity, the improvisation shown when fleshing out certain new constitutional details, its relationship with other political developments, and the chasm laid bare between Putin’s promise of the rebalancing of power in his 15 January 2020 Address to the Federal Assembly versus the reality of reform in practice.
The 2020 constitutional changes considerably increase presidential powers while sending mixed signals about presidential transition. The main driver of the amendments were term limits. The “zeroing” of Putin’s presidential terms enhances certainty for himself by fostering uncertainty for others. But there is more to the amendments: Numerous changes are not new, they simply align the constitutional text with subconstitutional powers the presidency had been accumulating. The embedding of term limit circumvention in a comprehensive constitutional overhaul is a risk-hedging strategy to avert resistance by weakening the signal about Putin’s intentions. Constitutional changes are therefore an instrument of elite coordination. The amendments also increase presidential flexibility. This expedited regime personalization is detrimental to governance and will make repression more prevalent. But it also creates more risks for Putin. Regardless of how presidential succession will play out, Putin’s legacy will be a highly personalized authoritarian regime with a constitutionally unconstrained presidency.
Russia’s 2020 Constitutional reform was notable not just for the substantial institutional changes introduced, but also for the almost complete lack of public discussion of those changes in elite debates or the public campaign for the nationwide vote. Instead, proposals to write social and patriotic issues into the Constitution absorbed the lion’s share of coverage. These issues were not superfluous, but rather reveal the dynamics of patriotic legitimation and the role of everyday patriotism in Russian politics today. Among Russia’s elite, patriotic legitimation regulates competition, determines the boundaries of acceptable public politics, and provides access to regime patronage. For the public, the avoidance of politics and the appropriation of Russians’ everyday patriotism facilitated the mobilization of an apolitical electorate in the nationwide vote. While the reform may have strengthened the institutional basis of Putin’s rule, it potentially limits the regime’s adaptability and could affect its long-term survivability.
Constitutional reform dominated Russia’s legal and political agenda in 2020. Starting with Putin’s January 15, 2020 state-of-the-nation address, the 1993 Yeltsin constitution was amended and substantially transformed to meet Putin’s immediate and more long-term political objectives. In the process a flawed but forward-looking document has been stripped of much of its liberal potential and instead been converted into a more traditional top-down system of governance. Putin did not just overturn the term limits on his presidency. He created a new power vertical (the unified system of public power), a stronger presidency, and a more subservient judiciary. Moreover, Putin’s amendments undermine the constitution’s internal consistency by introducing numerous contradictions into Russia’s founding law. In particular, while technically observing the constitution’s procedural requirements, he managed to downgrade Russia’s civil liberties—the highest value under the 1993 constitution—while elevating and expanding Russia’s social rights.
The articles in this issue explore the longer-term implications of Russia’s 2020 Constitutional Reform process. Assessing constitutional change from different theoretical and empirical approaches, these authors find that the constitution largely codified the status-quo as it had evolved over the past decade. The resulting institutional changes solidified the personalist political system that concentrates power in one leader. These reforms also created new mechanisms to preclude elite defection and generate societal quiescence. At the same time, the three-staged reform process that included formal adoption, national vote, and legal reconciliation, introduced new political risk by raising societal expectations, reinforcing cleavages through patriotic legitimization strategies, introducing new rigid structures, and relying on personalism and networks over institutional governance. These risks do not predict state failure but they suggest new challenges that will continue to shape Russian political development.
Of the 206 amendments introduced to the Russian constitution and adopted on July 1, 2020, 24 deal directly with the Constitutional Court, its organization, functioning, and the role it plays in the political system. Compared to many other, these are also rather precise and detailed, ranging from the number of judges on the bench, their nomination and dismissal, to the Court’s inner procedures, new locus standi limitations, and the primacy of the Constitution over Russia’s international obligations. Most changes only reproduce amendments brought to the secondary legislation over the last twenty years, and are therefore meant to preserve the status quo rather than change anything significantly. At the same time, a number of amendments aim at politicizing and instrumentalizing the Court for the president’s benefit, marking a significant departure from the previous institutional development.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan, like other postcommunist states, embarked on agricultural land reform. The government, assisted by international organizations, implemented laws and created campaigns to break up Soviet-style collective farms and encourage independent farms. After over a decade, 66 percent of farmers in the country, including in cotton-growing areas, continue to work collectively, and 71 percent of arable land is held in collectives. I argue that the decentralized nature of the land redistribution program enabled the managers of former collective farms, re-labeled as “collective peasant farms,” to gain power so that they could use informal practices to resist peasant shareholders’ efforts to actualize their land rights. Theoretically, my argument reconciles competing perspectives about the reasons for limited land redistribution in the context of postsocialist transition. The study’s policy implication is that the government of Tajikistan, and foreign donors, instead of decentralizing the implementation of land reform, should take an active role in physically redistributing land among shareholders.