Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made a startling announcement on Wednesday that he and his entire government will resign to get out of President Vladimir Putin’s way as Putin rewrites the Russian constitution.
Putin seeks to add provisions that would allow him to remain in power indefinitely, although he might still have to forfeit the title of “president.”
Medvedev issued his announcement on state television while sitting next to Putin, who thanked him for his service. Medvedev was promptly named deputy chairman of Putin’s Russian Security Council and asked to continue serving in a caretaker capacity, along with other officials, until a new Cabinet can be appointed.
Putin laid out his proposed constitutional changes only a few hours earlier during Russia’s version of the State of the Union address, calling for a nationwide referendum to implement them. Russian officials gave the impression this referendum would be organized quickly and held in the very near future.
The UK Guardian observed that while Putin’s changes nominally transfer more power to the legislature, skeptics immediately deduced the true purpose is to consolidate Putin’s power in perpetuity under some new office that would have no term limits while giving him an opportunity to set up a hand-picked presidential successor as the new prime minister. Russian news reports described Mikhail Mishustin, presently head of the Russian Federal Tax Service, as the most likely candidate to replace Medvedev as prime minister.
Putin is currently serving the second of two consecutive terms and his fourth term overall, making it mandatory for him to step aside as president in 2024.
“The main result of Putin’s speech: what idiots (and/or crooks) are all those who said that Putin would leave in 2024,” grumbled frequently-jailed Putin gadfly Alexei Navalny.
Revisions to the constitution laid out by Putin include stricter term limits on future presidents, giving the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament) the power to appoint the prime minister and his cabinet, and subjecting top judicial and security appointees to confirmation by the Federation Council (the upper house of parliament).
“The proposed changes to the constitution imply the government will actually be appointed by the Russian parliament, which is not how it is now, but at the same time, the president will retain the power to fire the government if he is not satisfied with their performance. The president will also keep control of the army, police and security, and will be appointing the heads of those services,” Moscow journalist Aleksandra Godfroid explained to Al-Jazeera on Wednesday.
“These changes do indicate a change in power structures, but at the same time, they do keep the president very strong,” Godfroid judged.
Putin also proposed including a requirement that future presidential candidates must never have held a foreign passport and a declaration that Russia’s constitution transcends international law, so the Russian government can ignore rulings from international courts. In addition to the constitutional changes, Putin’s annual address included nationalist praise for Russia’s military might, which supposedly includes super-weapons beyond the technological capability of the United States.
Critics of Putin’s constitutional changes speculated he would establish a new position for himself as party leader and permanent president of the security council he just appointed Medvedev to, or perhaps leader of the State Council, wielding power behind the scenes as the shadow boss of the nominal president. The Financial Times saw Putin following a path to permanent power resembling that taken by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Others thought Putin might become prime minister and effectively flip-flop the current structure to elevate that position above the presidency, a tactic humorously compared to the “castling” move in chess by longtime Putin-watchers after he did the same thing in reverse by swapping prime minister for president with Medvedev in 2008.
Market strategist Timothy Ash of Bluebay Asset Management theorized Putin is shaking up his government and proposing major changes to the constitution as a way of deflecting public anger and positioning himself as a grand reformer – which would indeed be similar to Xi Jinping’s road to power.
“I think all this is a response to opinion polls reflecting popular dissatisfaction with government and their lots in life, and ebbing support even for Putin. In terms of timing, Putin has waited until what he sees as the external risks from sanctions moderating. He will sell this new, fresh government as part of a fresh start/reach out to the West,” Ash said in an analysis quoted by CNBC on Wednesday.
Another analyst quoted by CNBC, Adeline Van Houtte of The Economist Intelligence Unit, thought Putin would use the government shakeup to “choose loyalists that he will put in power positions in his new government while he might be preparing to transition to a [prime minister] position with enlarged powers in 2024.”
The question of which party Putin might lead as president emeritus is an interesting one since the ruling United Russia party is deeply unpopular with the public due to corruption and ineptitude. United Russia lost a third of its seats in September’s Moscow elections, a curious contest in which United Russia candidates desperately tried to make voters forget which party they belonged to. Putin himself treats United Russia like an unpleasant relative he is occasionally required to visit in the hospital despite the party’s energetic support for his presidency.