Putin Is Ruling Russia Like a Central Asian Dictator

The Kremlin didn’t invent term limit resets and constitutional referendums. The autocratic leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan blazed the trail.

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Baku, Azerbaijan in December 2003.
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Baku, Azerbaijan in December 2003. ALEXEY PANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Between June 25 and July 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a national referendum on a host of constitutional amendments; unsurprisingly, it passed by an overwhelming majority. What drew the attention of most commentators was not the nature of these amendments—which touched on a variety of themes, from increasing social pensions to banning same-sex marriage—but the fact that, by changing the constitution, Putin opened the path to resetting his term as Russian president.

In office since 2000, when he was first elected president, Putin has ruled Russia continuously for two decades. (He did step down briefly, taking the position of prime minister from 2008 to 2012, but no one had any illusions as to who actually remained in charge.) Having reset his term, he could now in theory rule until 2036, by which point he will have bested Joseph Stalin as the longest-reigning ruler in Russia’s modern history. If Putin wanted to stay on even then, who could stop him but the constitution, which has already been trampled on?

It is anyone’s guess what Russia’s future might look like, but the immediate neighborhood offers some hints. After all, Central Asian countries were the pioneers of perpetual rule through constitutional amendments and referendums. Already in the 1990s, post-independence rulers of former Soviet republics schemed about holding on to power by resorting to superficially democratic methods. Putin is simply following their lead and implementing the same model in Moscow.

The trailblazer was Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan. In 1998, the country’s Constitutional Court nullified then-President Akayev’s first term (1991-1995), formally allowing him to run for his third term as president in 2000.

Kazakhstan’s longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev used the same tactic, when in 2000 the Constitutional Council reset his first term by fiat. Nazarbayev began his second term in 1999, after his presidency was extended via a national referendum. Because Kazakhstan’s constitution permitted no more than two presidential terms, Nazarbayev’s second term was simply declared his first. This allowed him to stand in the following election, which he easily won in 2005.

Nazarbayev was due to step down in 2012. He didn’t. Instead, in 2007, the constitutional two-term limit was eliminated just for Nazarbayev, making him de facto president for life. He remained in office, winning in extraordinary elections in 2011 and 2015—first with over 95 percent of votes and then with nearly 98 percent. Both elections were bitterly criticized by the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) as “non-competitive” and lacking “genuine opposition.”

Curiously, in March 2019, Nazarbayev finally decided to retire (though there were no constitutional restraints on his continued rule). But even as he stepped down after almost three decades in power, the former president retained significant levers of control as the lifetime head of the Security Council and the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, as well as a member of the Constitutional Council. He also kept the title of “Elbasy” (leader of the nation).

Meanwhile, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the second president of Kazakhstan, promised to consult with Nazarbayev on the appointment of a wide range of government positions, including heads of regions and all ministers apart from the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, and internal affairs.

Two other Central Asian states, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have also resorted to pro forma referendums to keep tyrants in power. In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov ruled the country continuously from its independence in 1991. Karimov’s reign from 1995 to 2000 was extended by a national referendum (that is, without holding elections), whereas his third presidential term (2007-2015) was ostensibly justified by 2002 constitutional amendments that extended the presidential tenure from five to seven years and thus reset his term. The unscheduled extraconstitutional event that ultimately put an end to Karimov’s presidency was his death in 2016.

The same story marked Turkmenistan’s post-independence journey. In 1994, then-President Saparmurat Niyazov (who had been in power since 1990) had his rule extended for eight more years by a nationwide referendum. He shouldn’t have bothered because in 1999 the legislature officially declared Niyazov president for life, thereby doing away with any need to hold sham elections like his Central Asian neighbors.

Niyazov ruled the country until he died in 2006. He was replaced by a former dentist, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who has ruled Turkmenistan continuously since then as a brutal dictator—though he has had his mandate confirmed via regularly held and blatantly fraudulent elections.

Another interesting example comes from Tajikistan’s 2003 referendum. As in Russia in 2020, Tajik citizens in 2003 voted in a referendum on constitutional amendments, which allowed the president, Emomali Rahmon (who had been in power since 1992 and was approaching the end of his second term), to run for another two terms. Rahmon went on to win the 2006 and 2013 elections. (As in Kazakhstan, ODIHR observers concluded that there was no “genuine choice.”) At last, in 2016, another constitutional referendum eliminated the term limits altogether, effectively making Rahmon president for life.

Similarly, the 2009 constitutional referendum in Azerbaijan eliminated the two-term restriction on then-President Ilham Aliyev (who himself is the son of previous President Heydar Aliyev). The younger Aliyev continues to rule, after winning consecutive fraudulent elections—most recently in 2018. He can stay in office indefinitely.

On Russia’s Western flank, in Belarus, constitutional amendments in the 1996 national referendum eventually added two more years to the presidency of the incumbent, Aleksandr Lukashenko. His term, originally begun in 1994, was now counted as having begun in 1996, when the constitution’s new version came into force. But in 2004, Lukashenko, via another referendum, simply abolished the term limit. This paved the way to his continuous reign: He won elections in 2006, 2010, and 2015. Lukashenko is now running for his sixth consecutive term, but this time his political ambitions have met with spirited popular resistance. He has therefore resorted to intimidation and arrests of opposition activists and journalists ahead of the Aug. 9 vote. To avoid being shamed by ODIHR, the Belarusian dictator opted not to invite international observers to witness the election.

Seen against the backdrop of these manipulations, Putin’s decision to perpetuate his rule through the promulgation of a new constitution is wholly unexceptional, falling squarely within the post-Soviet region’s mainstream. From holding fake elections to resetting or abolishing term limits to having oneself proclaimed as “president for life,” there is a wonderful range of options available to all aspiring dictators.

With the recent referendum, Putin has moved along the undemocratic continuum from the more nuanced (electoral fraud) to more creative (resetting terms). He has not yet reached the other end of the spectrum—having himself enthroned as Russia’s Elbasy—but nor will he have to, as he has every opportunity to peacefully die in office without needing any additional perks. In the unlikely event that he does choose to retire early, an arsenal of measures to hold on to power behind the scenes is there for his choosing, with Kazakhstan offering a profitable and well-marked path.

Putin could also move in the other direction. He could simply opt to step away from the helm when his current term expires in 2024. This will require an improbable change of direction, but it cannot be ruled out. But whether or not Putin leaves office of his own volition, he will leave in his wake an institutional weakness that inevitably results from treating the constitution as a work in progress.

A stable democracy is, after all, first and foremost a matter of developing good political habits. The longer the habit holds, the easier it is to sustain. But every reset triggers a return to the starting line and perhaps another chance at transitioning to true democracy. The experience of Russia’s immediate neighborhood shows that such chances have been consistently squandered.

Sergey Radchenko is a professor of international politics and director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. He is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War. Twitter: @DrRadchenko

Baurzhan Rakhmetov is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University.

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