-Analysis-

MOSCOW — It was arguably the most dramatic day in Russian politics since the late 1990s: a bolt from the blue that even senior government officials didn't see coming. On Wednesday, January 15 the country's political landscape was turned upside-down by a double bombshell.

First, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced proposals for sweeping changes to the country's constitution in his annual state-of-the-nation address to both chambers of parliament, outlining "serious changes to the political system" that would nominally be subject to a public referendum.

Then, just hours later, the entire government resigned, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the man whose political career has been closely interlinked with that of Putin since the early 2000s. "In this context, it's clear that we, as the government of the Russian Federation, should provide the president of our country the opportunity to take all the necessary decisions," said Medvedev, announcing his resignation.

To further confuse matters, Putin swiftly appointed the head of the Federal Tax Service Mikhail Mishustin to replace Medvedev, a step which was subsequently approved by the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. A political lightweight and a name that was familiar to few until Wednesday, Mishustin was a far from obvious choice for the post.

It was a trademark move by the Russian leader, who over the course of 20 years in power has made a habit of catching observers off-guard with unexpected reforms and sudden changes of course. The developments left analysts and journalists scrambling to explain what this all meant in the context of Russia's political structure – and more pointedly, in terms of Putin's future.

Weaker president, stronger parliament

The package of proposed amendments to the constitution would – on paper – see Russia moving towards becoming a parliamentary republic, with power shifting away from the presidency towards parliament. The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, would acquire greater powers to appoint the prime minister and cabinet. Under the current system, the president is responsible for appointing the prime minister, with the Duma then approving the decision.

Although Putin said that the proposed constitutional changes would need to be approved by Russians in a public referendum, Yelena Pamfilova, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, suggested that a vote may not be necessary. There are "other forms of discussion" available to implement the constitutional changes, she told the Interfax news agency.

Navalny: To remain sole leader for life — this is the sole aim of Putin and his regime.

Sources for Russia's leading business daily Kommersant appeared to back this up, arguing that the amendments could be made to the constitution as early as the spring as part of a more simplified procedure. A working group tasked with overseeing preparations for the reforms has already been set up.

Senior Kremlin officials quickly issued statements praising what they described as necessary reforms. Valentina Matvienko, speaker for the Federation Council, Russia's upper chamber of parliament, told journalists that the president had "made a very bold decision in transferring part of his powers to parliament. This tells society that we have a genuinely stable political system."

Others, however, saw the announcement as a clear signal that 69-year-old Putin is laying the groundwork for his departure from the presidency, with an eye on retaining power in some other form, possibly through the creation of a new role. Alexei Navalny, the leader of Russia's opposition, mocked "dolts" who believed Putin would leave the political scene after his current term: "To remain sole leader for life, having made the whole country his own, and appropriated its wealth for himself and his friends — this is the sole aim of Putin and his regime," he wrote on Twitter.

The third way

With the constitution forbidding Putin from running for president again when his current term expires in 2024, speculation has been mounting over his plans for the future ever since he was reelected in 2018. Few expect him to step back from politics completely, so the question becomes how will he try to hold onto power. Analysts had identified three key scenarios that would allow Putin to remain at the helm while preserving legitimacy, either by circumventing the limits on presidential terms or through other means

Mishustin at his confirmation hearing at the State Duma on Jan.16, 2020. Source: duma

One would have seen him repeat the "castling" move he made at the end of his second term in 2008, when he swapped roles with Dmitry Medvedev, who at the time, as he is now, was prime minister. After four years as president, Medvedev then obediently stepped aside in 2012, announcing that he would not seek another term and was backing Putin for the top job again. However, while doing this again would not require any changes to the constitution, this was widely seen as the least attractive option in view of the street protests that broke out in cities across Russia in the winter of 2011-2012 after Putin's return to power.

The "Kazakhstan option" for Putin is the creation of a new post as a means of retaining power.

Another theory was that Putin would aim to coerce Belarus into a political merger with Russia, thus creating a new vacancy as head of a unified Russian-Belarusian state. The problem with this approach was that there was widespread opposition to the idea in Belarus, not least from its strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, who over the years has proved a master at rebuffing Kremlin overtures while leaving himself just enough room for maneuver. Lukashenko has little interest in giving up everything he has built over the last 25 years in order to become Putin's junior partner.

The third option, which after Wednesday's move seems the most likely, is that Putin will seek a constitutional change in order to secure future immunity and influence for himself, perhaps involving the creation of a new post that would allow him to retain the final say in how the country is governed. Commentators are already describing it as the "Kazakhstan option", after Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Kazakh leader officially resigned as president in March 2019 after almost 30 years in power, while remaining at the head of the ruling party and maintaining his role as chairman of the country's Security Council.

Putin's annual live question-and-answer session in December 2019 had given a clue as to which way he was leaning. The Russian leader had made a passing reference to the possibility of changes to the constitution, suggesting that a clause stating that no president can serve more than two successive terms could be re-worded to exclude the word "consecutive." This hint reemerged on Wednesday as one of the proposed amendments.

Improvisation or masterplan?

The proposals themselves raise as many questions as they answer, though it's now clear that Putin seems to be leaning toward the "Kazakh" model. Besides appearing to restrict any successor to two terms, the constitutional changes would also prevent any candidate who holds foreign citizenship from occupying the post of president – which would appear to exclude Russia's most influential officials and big hitters, many of whom also hold EU passports.

These curbs would not only limit the power of the next president, but seem calculated to ensure that Putin's direct successor lacks influence and has a weak power base – as does the appointment of Mishustin as prime minister.

So even if the announcement in itself was no great surprise, the whole government falling on its sword the same day was quite unexpected. Is Medvedev suddenly yesterday's man? At least in practical terms, yes. A series of tactless public comments and a high-profile investigation by opposition leader Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation that revealed a vast collection of fraudulently acquired villas, yachts and wineries have turned Medvedev, who ironically styled himself as a crusader against corruption, into a figure of ridicule. So pulling him out of the firing line made sense.

The architect of modern Russia is not yet willing to relinquish control of the system he has built.

However, he might still have a role to play. Following Medvedev's resignation, Putin swiftly created a new position for him as deputy chairman of the Security Council, meaning that while Medvedev is being "retired" from public, he will still be on hand.

Tellingly, Putin noted in his address that he also envisaged a greater role for the State Council, an advisory body comprising the heads of Russia's federal regions, which he currently heads. It is conceivable that we might soon see the Putin-Medvedev tandem – and the ultimate source of power in Russia – shift to two new poles.

However, at this stage it is unclear to what degree the proposed changes are elements of a carefully crafted strategy: it remains possible that Putin has not yet made up his mind on the details and is merely providing himself with new options. The one thing that seems clear is that the architect of modern Russia is not yet willing to relinquish control of the system he has built.

"Vladimir Putin is probably looking at constitutional changes as a means of retaining real control over the situation in the country," wrote opposition politician Boris Vishnevsky in an op-ed for the independent Novaya Gazeta. It would "begin with, after 2024, allowing different options for his future post after that."

For Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, Putin is implementing an adept strategy. "It's like a game of chess — he's increasing the number of possible personal moves closer to 2024," he told Kommersant. "But it's still too early to talk about a final configuration."


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