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This month marked the 20th anniversary since the establishment of a Russian institution that most people in the West have never heard of: the Russian State Council. For much of its existence, it was largely dismissed as a peripheral institution, but attention began to focus on the Council as people pondered how Russian President Vladimir Putin would deal with his ‘2024 problem’ – that is, what he would do when his current presidential term runs out. The thought was that the State Council might be beefed up and serve as a place for Putin to move away from the presidency, but retain control over Russian politics.
In the end, the president took a step that many thought he would not: amending the constitution to reset the clock to ‘zero’ in his presidential term record, thus allowing him to run again in 2024 and 2030, potentially keeping him as president until 2036.
But the State Council is back in the news. Why? Before discussing possibilities, a little historical background is needed.
Putting Governors in Their Place
Putin created the Council with Decree No. 1602, signed on 1 September 2000. The body was formed as a token gesture to the heads of Russia’s regions, who lost their ex officio seats in the Federation Council – the upper chamber of the national-level legislature, the Federal Assembly – in a move by Putin to weaken regional leaders. Losing their legislative seats was a blow, removing their physical and symbolic place at the heart of Russian politics, along with the influence that facilitated, as well as perquisites such as accommodation in Moscow and immunity from prosecution.
Officially, the Council was created as an advisory body to allow communication between the presidency and regional heads. Its formal role has been to help the head of state implement their powers relating to ‘ensuring the coordinated functioning and interaction of organs of state power’. But, with no mention of the body in the 1993 Russian constitution, it was a para-constitutional initiative – an attempt (albeit half-hearted) to keep governors sweet during Putin’s recentralisation of power in the Russian Federation.
As it currently operates, the State Council is chaired by the Russian president, and its membership consists of: the speakers of both the Federation Council and the State Duma; presidential plenipotentiaries for federal districts (currently eight); regional heads (currently 85, including Crimea and Sebastopol); and leaders of political parties in the State Duma.
2020 Constitutional Changes
In his 15 January Address to the Federal Assembly, Putin mentioned the State Council, along with a whole host of other constitutional changes and social spending promises. Specifically, he said that he thought it ‘appropriate to fix the status and role of the State Council in the Russian Constitution’. The reason? To ‘cardinally increase the role of governors in decision-making at the federal level’.
Given the steps taken by Putin during his various presidential terms to reduce the influence of governors on federal-level politics – most drastically, by cancelling direct elections for regional governors in 2004 – many dismissed this public rationale as a fiction. The real reason, so the thinking went, was to transform the Council and use it to help solve his own succession problem.
This line of thinking gained credibility as the constitutional reform process progressed. In particular, according to the draft language proposed by Putin in his constitutional reform bill, the Council’s functions were to align closely with the authorities of the president as defined in the existing constitutional text – specifically, ‘determining the main directions of the domestic and foreign policy’ of Russia.
The plausibility of this scenario was reinforced by 2019 developments in Kazakhstan. On stepping down from the Kazakh presidency in March 2019, Nursultan Nazarbayev remained chairman of the Security Council of Kazakhstan – a position from which he holds significant influence over politics in the country.
But Putin appeared to rule out this possibility. The president criticised the idea of ‘dual power’ in Russia – that is, of the idea that a political actor other than the president might have power and authorities overlapping (and, potentially, clashing) with the head of state. It would, he said, be ‘very wrong’ and ‘risky’.
Back in the News
The Council was, however, back on the agenda in early September 2020. Although the new, short section in the constitution referring to the State Council became effective on 4 July – along with all of the other changes to Russia’s basic law – the particular details of this ‘updated’ Council need to be specified in a separate federal law.
Pavel Krasheninnikov – an influential Duma committee chairman and co-chair of the constitutional reform working group – has stated that he expects the State Council bill (in other words, the draft federal law) to be introduced by Putin into the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly – and discussed in its first reading at some point between the second half of September and the start of October.
This development was accompanied by a documentary programme, The Indispensable State Council, broadcast on Rossiya 24. In an interview for the programme, Putin said that it was necessary to give the Council ‘more significance, [and] more meaning’.
Little Change Now…
In practice, however, it is not yet clear how the Council will gain influence. In fact, one possibility is that, when the presidential bill fleshing out this ‘updated’ body is introduced into the State Duma, it will suggest very little that is new. There have been reports that discussion has only been about second-order details such as whether the body might meet in St Petersburg rather than Moscow, and whether other officials might be added to its membership, including the head of the Investigative Committee, as well as the heads of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court.
In practice, therefore, the impact of the constitutional reform relating to the State Council might merely raise its legal status and, by extension, the symbolic federal status of regional heads.
… But More in the Future?
Even if the State Council federal law changes little in practice now, that doesn’t preclude more significant changes in the future.
One key feature to monitor is the question of who heads the body. The new text of the constitution says that the president ‘forms’ the State Council. It does not say that the president also chairs the Council. This leaves open the possibility that Putin might well leave the presidency but retain leadership of the Council to supervise the ‘main directions of domestic and foreign policy’.
Yes, Putin has spoken out against ‘dual power’ in the past. But, if the constitutional reform process this year has taught us anything, it is that we should take with a healthy pinch of salt statements from senior officials and politicians about the impossibility of future political changes. Before announcing constitutional changes at the start of 2020, Putin more than once ruled out the possibility of constitutional change, including in relation to presidential terms and term limits.
When asked about whether the posts of president and State Council chair might be occupied by different people in the future, Pavel Krasheninnikov prevaricated: ‘I do not really welcome discourse about who takes what away from whom, who will do what when, and who will move where.’ This ambiguity might prove telling.
Even if the new federal law on the Council states that the president also serves as the body’s chair, this could also be changed quite easily in the future. As a simple federal law – and not a federal constitutional law – it could be amended by a simple majority of the State Duma (before approval by the Federation Council and presidential signature).
As is so often the case with upcoming political change in Russia, rumours will continue to swirl. This reflects a number of things, including: the different visions and interests at play, resulting in leaking, briefing and counter-briefing; the opacity of the decision-making process, inviting and perpetuating court gossip; and the likelihood that Putin has not yet settled on his own finalised plan for the Council.
Looking ahead, we should view developments regarding the State Council alongside possible changes to the Security Council in Russia – a body which now also has constitutional status, but which currently plays a much more influential role in Russian politics.
Ben Noble completed a doctorate on the politics of lawmaking in contemporary Russia at the University of Oxford. He is currently a Lecturer in Russian Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin's 2020 Address to the Federal Assembly. Courtesy of kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons.