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World & Nation

With his constitutional ‘reform,’ Putin follows a familiar playbook to extend autocratic rule

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week proposed constitutional changes that could keep him in power well past the end of his term in 2024.
(Mikhail Klimentyev / Associated Press)

It’s not always a thunderous midnight knock on a dissident’s door, or tanks rumbling through cobblestone streets, or a leader-for-life’s face displayed on giant, ubiquitous billboards.

Sometimes, an authoritarian’s tightening grip on power is a far subtler affair — couched in the benign language of constitutional reform, perhaps, or conveyed as a mundane technical adjustment in the powers of certain governmental institutions. It can even take place in the guise of a seemingly free election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin — whose plucked-from-obscurity choice for prime minister won overwhelming parliamentary approval Thursday, to the surprise of virtually no one — is operating from an autocrat’s playbook that is both old and new, analysts say. Elsewhere in the world, he has plenty of company.

“Dictators don’t voluntarily step away from power without some way to defend themselves and their assets,” said Marc Behrendt, the director of Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes democracy and human rights.

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That can mean a carefully calibrated campaign, sometimes taking place over many years, as authoritarian leaders work to make sure that not only they, but also cronies who prop up their governments, will be protected in the long term. Thus, personal power and personal financial gain can become inextricably entwined.

Scholars of democracy, particularly of its global erosion in recent years, say that in countries such as Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary or President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, a leader will often make calculated use of structures that are meant to strengthen the rule of law, employing them to weaken it instead.

That can involve methods such as undermining the independence of the judiciary, as activists have documented in Poland, a member of the European Union. Or independent institutions such as a formerly free press can be co-opted, as in Hungary, also an EU member, through the buying up of news outlets by business titans friendly to the government.

Frequently, the most convenient vehicle for pushing through change that works to a leader’s advantage is the constitution, generally a country’s revered founding document or one adopted after momentous social change. For an authoritarian head of state or government, being able to characterize as constitutional even profoundly undemocratic actions — such as jailing political opponents in the name of national security — provides a veneer of legitimacy, analysts say.

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“When autocrats settle into power, they use the constitution as a tool or weapon,” said Larry Diamond, a senior researcher at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the author of several books on democratic backsliding. “It’s really authoritarian pseudo-constitutionalism — a superficial use and distortion of the constitution to hide the reality of personal domination.”

In Turkey, constitutional change was wielded by Erdogan as a key means of consolidating his authority. When he first became prime minister in 2003, the ruling Justice and Development Party was initially hailed for economic and democratic accomplishments. But by the time a 2017 constitutional referendum transformed the country from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic, the Turkish leader was already cracking down hard on dissent of any kind, becoming the world’s leading jailer of journalists and purging the civil service and the judiciary of those he calls enemies.

“Turkish democracy was never perfect, and there had been many serious warning signs long before this change,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute. “But after that, he was able to destroy institutions that were supposed to provide checks and balances.”

Describing their own actions as being in the best interests of democracy is a hallmark of power consolidation by autocrats, often in an up-is-down Orwellian fashion, analysts say.

“For some of the most undemocratic moves, you will hear people using the most democratic-sounding language,” said Behrendt, of Freedom House. In its most recent annual survey, in 2019, the group found for the 13th year in a row that more countries had become more repressive than had become more free.

In Russia, a day after calling for sweeping constitutional changes, Putin on Thursday set about expediting their enactment. Addressing the body that will draft the articles, the Russian leader said strengthening the role of parliament, as envisioned under his proposals, would also bolster civil society and a diverse array of political parties.

The proposed changes — together with the parliamentary endorsement of a seemingly pliable new prime minister, former tax chief Mikhail Mishustin — were widely viewed by outside analysts as means by which Putin, 67, could hang on to power beyond the end of his presidential term in 2024.

Russia’s leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, wrote on Twitter that Putin’s constitutional plans were indicative of his intent to “rule until he dies.”

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Another common autocratic tactic is ending or extending term limits on the holding of office, but the practice tends to take place along a spectrum.

Leaders like Putin will sometimes flirt publicly with the idea but stop short of enacting it, instead favoring tactical moves such as switching back and forth between the posts of president and prime minister, with the real power accruing to whichever job they occupy at the time.

On the more brazen end would be China’s President Xi Jinping, 66, who in essence anointed himself leader for life in 2018 by abolishing presidential term limits. That caught the eye of President Trump, who was presumed to be speaking in jest when he told a private fundraiser soon afterward that it was a “great” move by Xi.

Trump, whose impeachment trial on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress began Thursday in the Senate, has frequently mused at campaign-style rallies about extending his own term beyond 2024 if he is reelected, always framing it as a joke.

Because elections are seen as the primary expression of democratic will, autocratic leaders are usually mindful of the fact that they might risk the loss of some aid or other international sanctions by rigging an election, as Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro did in 2018. Under his corruption-ridden rule, that once-prosperous country lies in economic ruins.

But many authoritarian-minded leaders manage to walk the fine line of maintaining friendly Western ties even after elections that take place in a broadly criticized political climate. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi garnered 97% of the vote in balloting that took place in 2014 and 2018, although with a much lower turnout in the latter vote.

The State Department said at the time it had noted reports of “constraints on freedoms of expression and association” leading up to the 2018 vote, but Sisi has since been warmly received by Trump at the White House.

Even in countries that meet many generally accepted democratic standards, there are gray zones. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling to secure parliamentary immunity against criminal corruption charges at the same time he is seeking reelection.

Opponents accuse him of damaging the country’s democracy to save his political skin, but Netanyahu and his backers insist he is not seeking to evade justice, only to ensure that standing trial would not compromise his official duties.

Diamond, the political scientist and author, continues to see a global retreat for democracy, even as authoritarian-style leaders engage in a kind of pantomime of democratic mores.

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“What autocrats do in an effort to maintain their legitimacy takes many different forms,” he said. “With Putin, this game he’s playing isn’t for the first time … and around the world, this is all a very common pattern.”


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