Vladimir Putin: An Eternal President for Russia's Twilight
By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Russia’s Constitutional Court in mid-March approved several constitutional measures that could allow current President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036. The court made the decision after Russia’s regions approved the measure.
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A public vote is required for the changes to become law. The public was to vote on them on April 22. However, the pandemic has forced the government to delay the referendum temporarily. “Temporarily” is the key word. For the referendum to pass, more than half of the public needs to vote in favor of the changes. Even though Putin’s party has slipped in the polls, the changes will likely have enough support to pass.
This proposed change to the constitution is significant. Once the changes become law, the counter prohibiting Putin from seeking a third consecutive term resets to zero. The Russian president, first elected in 1999, is 67 years old so approval of the change would likely keep him in power until he is 83. The ‘likely’ factor stems from a lack of a Putin successor. He may have someone in mind to replace him, but making that choice public could become a political threat. Though Putin has a tight grip on the reins in Moscow, he is not without enemies and Russia has always been a dangerous place for politicians.
Why Putin Remains Popular in Russia
Putin came into power in the midst of chaos; although he seems to have righted the ship, that ship seems dependent on Putin staying in power. A cursory glance at the Russian government finds Putin loyalists throughout the bureaucracies and regions, a strong demonstration that the government was crafted based upon personality.
In other words, the government, as it is, only works with Putin in power. Remove Putin, and the edifice crumbles and a return to the chaos of the 1990s is not difficult to imagine. This statement should not be read as an endorsement; rather, it is simply an acknowledgment that the president was dealt a bad hand and he played it skillfully. This also shows why Putin remains popular among certain segments of Russian society. Average Russians had to live through that chaos and Putin was the person who brought some sort of stability. Putin’s luck, however, is running out.
Endemic Problems in Russia
Like many nations, Russia is struggling to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, but the nation is also locked in a battle over oil production with Saudi Arabia. If the oil war ends soon, with both Riyadh and Moscow agreeing over production to stabilize prices, the damage to Russia’s economy is problematic, though Saudi Arabia will suffer, too.
Russia is an exporter of natural resources along with its energy, raw materials, and agricultural products. Yet, it is an exporter under sanctions. As you can imagine, that combination is a nightmare. With these problems in mind, Russia planned to use a rainy day fund to support the nation in the event the oil war with Saudi Arabia dragged on. Judging by Russia’s math, use of the fund would indeed help the nation weather some of the economic storm. Then the pandemic took hold, and now Moscow’s numerous economic problems must grapple with a new dynamic.
The problem with exporting nations is they are dependent on someone to buy their products. With the pandemic essentially shuttering economic activity globally, Russian oil production far exceeds demand, thus driving prices even lower.
The same goes for any other raw material that Russia sells. Demand for Russian oil and raw materials will eventually return. But that will take time and the lingering effect of sanctions that are still in place will further damage Russia’s ability to recover. If that weren’t enough, Russia is facing another problem to which there is no easy solution.
That Russia is facing a demographic crisis is well known, but how the nation will fare with the current pandemic is the question. Currently, Russian deaths outnumber births, pushing the median age of the country to 40 years old. With COVID-19 taking an outsized toll on the elderly and those with underlying health issues, the older the nation, the higher the likely the death toll.
But the underlying health issues most prevalent in Russia, such as drug abuse and alcoholism, will likely play a role in stressing the health care system. Russia appears to have a modern health care system, but the U.S. and many European nations do too, and they have had to deal with the strain caused by the outbreak.
It is unlikely Russia will fare any better. Russia will survive the pandemic, but it will place further strain on a nation that is already short on young people to serve in the military or otherwise contribute economically. As the Russian birth rate continues to fall, the situation will worsen.
The demographic, economic and political crises will come to a head around the time Putin leaves office in 2036. The average age of the Russian population will increase, and the overall population will decrease. The pandemic may hasten the decline somewhat, but the decline will happen and Russia simply does not have an answer to the issues.
Putin has done what he can to keep the Russian state cohesive and functional. But with a political system entirely dependent on the current president, its survival after Putin is limited. Russia has tied its fate to Putin because he was the person who brought the country out of the post-Cold War chaos and he will see the current affairs of Russia, as abysmal as they are, until the end.
Russia will continue to exist post-Putin, but over the next two decades, Russia will decline until it is no longer a functioning state. Extending Putin’s tenure will not change that, and alternative options are limited.
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