Russia has a new government! Well, technically. Very technically.
Russia is ruled by a strongman who has substituted the illusion of stability for its substance. Russian people will have to pay the price for the president’s decades of corruption and mismanagement. Putin’s lasting legacy will be the vacuum of power underneath him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed sweeping changes to the country’s political system that would shift powers away from the presidency in favor of parliament and the prime minister. The constitutional changes will be put to the Russian people in a referendum, leading the government of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to resign en masse so as to “give the president of our country the chance to make all decisions necessary.” Unsurprisingly, the political upheaval has prompted mass speculation for what these moves mean for Putin staying on past 2024 when constitutional term limits will force him to give up the country’s presidency. Sort of.
They are Putin’s opening moves to keep power in Russia even after he moves on from the presidency. It wasn’t clear it would come to this—after all, Putin has already been in power for 20 years now, making him the longest-serving ruler of Russia since Josef Stalin. Putin was always likely to remain a key power-broker in Russian politics and this move helps confirm, ensure and formalize that reality.
The changes, which triggered the resignation of the prime minister and government, are widely seen as giving Putin, 67, scope to extend his grip on power once he leaves the presidency in 2024. He has dominated Russian politics, as president or as prime minister, for two decades. Here’s what the proposed constitutional changes are and different scenarios for how things could pan out:
A STRONGER PARLIAMENT AND PM: Putin proposed that the parliament be handed the power to appoint the prime minister. At the moment, the president picks the prime minister and parliament then approves the nomination. Under Putin’s proposals, the president would not be able to block the parliament’s pick. Parliament would also be handed the power to name the cabinet at the prime minister’s recommendation.
A WEAKER PRESIDENT: Under Putin’s proposal, future presidents will be limited to a maximum of two terms in power thus weakening the presidency by redistributing some of its powers among other institutions. Putin himself is currently serving out his fourth term. Also, there will be an introduction of new rules that would disbar any future presidential contenders who had lived in the country for less than 25 years. Nor, under Putin’s new rules, could any future president have ever held foreign citizenship or a residence permit abroad. The residency rules are seen as targeting political exiles or opposition figures who may have studied abroad.
STATE COUNCIL: Putin will now boost the status of the State Council, currently, a low-profile body that advises the president, and for its role to be enshrined in the constitution for the first time. The council is composed of the heads of Russia’s regions. The lower house of parliament will now have the power to appoint the prime minister and the cabinet and the upper house will have the power to confirm the head of security-related government positions He will significantly increase the decision-making power of regional leaders at the federal level, suggesting the council will gain extra powers.
PUTIN’S OWN OPTIONS: The Russian constitution prevents Putin, 67, from immediately serving another presidential term when he steps down in 2024 and he is in any case proposing to change the constitution to limit the number of terms anyone can serve to two. That suggests he will definitely step down in 2024.
Here are some roles Putin could take on instead that would allow him to retain power and influence.
Putin served as prime minister from 2008 to 2012, when his ally Dmitry Medvedev took over as president after Putin was forced to step down due to constitutional rules. Under his proposed changes, the role of prime minister would become more powerful, so Putin might be tempted to return to his old job.
The State Council, a body that advises the president, would be handed additional powers under Putin’s proposed shake-up. One option would be for Putin to head the council, allowing him to extend his influence that way.
A similar move was made by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev before he stepped down last year after nearly three decades in power in the former Soviet country. Before leaving office, the 79-year-old Kazakh president boosted the powers of his Security Council and made himself its chairman for life, allowing him to retain a central role in the country’s leadership after stepping down. Bestowed by parliament with the official title of “The Leader of the Nation”, Nazarbayev also retains his role as the leader of the ruling party. A role in a super-charged parliament could be an appealing option for Putin. He could consider becoming the speaker of the reformed legislative body, a role that would also allow him to perpetuate his influence.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?: Former prime minister Dmitri Medvedev has already been appointed Putin’s deputy on the Kremlin’s Security Council (another advisory body), a position many observers see as an opportunity to groom him as a possible presidential successor by giving him more exposure say over defense and foreign policy matters (though Putin retains final word on both). For Medvedev, the move away from the premiership is addition by subtraction; prime ministers in Russia tend to take the brunt of the criticism for domestic missteps. This is a chance for Medvedev to get the political space he needs and rehabilitate his image—after all, more than half of all Russians believe his job performance leaves much to be desired. Putin has also installed Mikhail Mishustin, the former head of Russia’s federal tax service, as prime minister. Russian parliament then approved Mishustin’s list of new Cabinet members. Putin has also ordered the creation of a working group to assess his proposed constitutional amendments. Its members include pro-Kremlin lawmakers, as well as popular figures such as pianist Denis Matsuev and former Olympic pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva.
His proposed amendments would be put to a referendum and parliament would approve the amendments before the end of its spring session. There is little doubt the parliament will approve all of the constitutional amendments, possibly as soon as the end of February. Once that happens, Russians will get a chance to participate in a “public vote.” The Kremlin has been quick to note that the vote is not a referendum, though it hasn’t said exactly what it is either.
DOES THIS MEAN PUTIN WILL RULE FOR LIFE?: We still don’t know what Putin’s final play is. He may not know himself, and he has plenty of options available to him. Putin might even become the ruler of a joint Russia-Belarus union that’s been in talks for years now. Whatever the final position he holds will be, the moves are all about equalizing power across various branches of Russia’s political power; in so doing, Putin ensures that he will remain the primary political operator in the country past 2024 in whatever position he holds. No one could use powers in other formal government positions to rival him.