‘Giving up significant powers’ Putin says that amending the constitution will allow Russia’s parliament to appoint the prime minister. This isn’t true.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin during the first meeting of members of the new government on January 21, 2020

What did Putin say?

In an interview on the television channel Rossiya-1, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the Communist Party’s call to vote against the proposed changes to the constitution during the July 1 plebiscite. Members of the Communist Party had called the amendments — which would give Putin the opportunity to remain in power until 2036 — “a strengthening of the presidential dictatorship.” Putin, on the other hand, said “it’s the opposite.”

What’s wrong with what Putin said — in a nutshell

Putin is freely interpreting the current procedure for forming a government and interpreting the procedure suggested in the amendments to the constitution even more freely. After the amendments are approved, the president of the Russian Federation will still choose the prime minister himself, just like now. However, under the current legislation, in the event of a conflict with the State Duma, the president must choose between appointing a compromise figure and calling for snap parliamentary elections. After the constitutional amendments, the president will be able to push through the desired candidate for prime minister without being obliged to hold early elections. In other words, everything will be easier for the president.

Now for an in-depth explanation.

How does Russia form a government now?

According to the current version of Article 111 of the Russian Constitution, the country’s president appoints the prime minister with the consent of the State Duma. In practice, it looks like this: the head of state submits a candidate for prime minister to the Duma for consideration; if the majority of deputies vote in favor, the candidate is appointed to the position. If the State Duma votes against, then the president gets two more attempts. According to Article 111, paragraph four, the president is expected to submit a different candidate each time. That said, the Russian Constitutional Court allowed the president to propose the same candidate all three times in 1998.

If the State Duma rejects the presidential candidate (or candidates) in the second and third rounds, the head of state personally appoints the prime minister, but is then obliged to dissolve the State Duma and call for new elections. On the one hand, this testifies to the president’s decisive role in forming the government. On the other hand, it provides a limitation, since it’s not always beneficial for the president to call elections. This is exactly what happened in 1998: President Boris Yeltsin was unpopular at the time, and the State Duma rejected his suggested candidate, Viktor Chernomyrdin, twice. Under the threat of having to hold new elections, Yeltsin was forced to nominate Yevgeny Primakov for the third round. 

According to Article 83 of the Constitution and Article 9 of the law “On the government,” the Russian president appoints the deputy prime ministers and federal ministers to the cabinet at the suggestion of the prime minister. That said, because there has yet to be any publicly known cases in which the prime minister has suggested an objectionable candidate, in this sense Putin is technically right. However, from a purely theoretical perspective, such a situation is possible, in which case the president only has two options: either consent, or dismiss a cabinet that is not-yet formed. 

What do the constitutional amendments suggest?

The proposed amendments to the Constitution will only change the wording of the procedure for appointing the prime minister. “The Prime Minister of the Russian Federation is appointed by the President of the Russian Federation after the approval of his candidacy by the State Duma,” the first paragraph of the new version of Article 111 says. However, the “approval” procedure itself doesn’t differ from the current process of “giving consent” — in fact, it’s exactly the same: the State Duma is to consider the candidate or candidates for prime minister at the suggestion of the president. However, the president is no longer bound by the obligation to dissolve the State Duma if it rejects his proposed candidate(s) all three times. In the event that this takes place, the president can simply appoint a prime minister — whether or not he dissolves the lower house is left to his own discretion. 

That said, the parliament does take on a somewhat increased role in the appointment of the remaining government ministers, since the prime minister will now make candidate suggestions to the State Duma, rather than the president. But if the deputies reject the prime minister’s candidates for ministerial and deputy prime minister positions all three times, then the president has the right to appoint them himself (as outlined in Article 112, paragraph four of the new version of the Constitution). If the Duma does not agree to more than one third of the proposed candidates, then the president has the right to dissolve the lower house. What’s more, the deputies will not be allowed to influence cabinet appointments if they rejected the candidate for prime minister all three times and the president appointed him independently (as outlined in Article 112, paragraph five of the new document). Overall, the Duma will have very few reasons to argue with the president: it’s of little use, and it poses the risk of new elections nearly every time.

Moreover, the president will appoint powerful ministers, as well as the foreign affairs minister, personally — after a “consultation” with the Federation Council. The status of these consultations is not yet clear, but, judging by Putin’s own words during the aforementioned interview, the consultation will consist of the candidates making preliminary statements to the parliament’s upper house (the Federal Assembly). 

Finally, the president will receive greater freedom in the event of a prime minister’s resignation. While under the current Constitution the head of government’s dismissal automatically leads to the resignation of the entire cabinet, the proposed amendments would give the president the right to dismiss the prime minister alone, allowing the cabinet to remain in place and continue to work. 

(C)MEDUZA 2020

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