In an unprecedented major reshuffle of the Kremlin, Prime Minister Medvedev announced that he and the entire government would resign after Putin had announced not only constitutional amendments but a significant shift within the balance of powers in Russia.
The resignation came as a surprise to people in Russia as well as to observers all over the globe. Not even Russian state TV had been informed about the decision beforehand. With the move, Putin aims to provide the Russian parliament with significantly more power while restraining the abilities of future presidents.
Medvedev moves to the Security Council
According to Medvedev, the resignations aims to provide Putin with the opportunity to initiate the necessary changes in the country. At the same time, the current government would continue to conduct its duties in a caretaker position until a new cabinet is in place. The latter, Medvedev has also confirmed, will be handpicked by Putin.
Medvedev had been Russia’s Prime Minister since 2012 when he ceased to be the country’s president. He is also chairman of the Kremlin’s United Russia party. Now, Medvedev will become the Deputy Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, a body where urgent foreign and security policy issues are conducted and where Putin has also been the president.
As Medvedev’s successor, and thus new Prime Minister of Russia, Putin proposed the head of the national tax authority, Mikhail Mishustin, who has already accepted Putin’s request.
Under Medvedev, the government had gotten under immense pressure due to the country’s economic crisis. A controversial pension reform had also caused major political rifts in recent years. The fact that Medvedev himself remained highly unpopular in Russia never helped the government’s cause either.
Powershift away from the presidency towards the Duma
Prior to the resignation, Putin had proposed a referendum on significant constitutional changes during his traditional state of the union speech. The ultimate result aims to redistribute power away from the presidency and any potential successor towards parliament, the Duma. Inter alia, parliament members, in the future, would select the prime minister as well as the cabinet. So far, the prime minister had been the president’s prerogative, while the Duma was only voting on the president’s pick. Moreover, the Federation Council, Russia’s upper chamber, would gain powers over the appointment of security officials. At the same time, the constitutional position of the State Council, which Putin currently also holds, would see increased powers via the envisioned changes, too.
Nonetheless, Putin stated he was seeking to maintain Russia’s robust presidential system. However, the criteria for presidential candidates would be tightened. The president would thus continue to hold significant powers and retains the right to determine the government’s tasks and priorities, while also being in charge of dismissing the Prime Minister and his government. The president would also maintain “direct control” over the military, police, and secret services.
Moreover, Putin emphasized that the requirements for potential successors would be reestablished. Thus, a candidate would not only have to be Russian but a citizen for at least 25 years, with no dual citizenship. Additional changes that Putin mentioned include the limitation of international law, providing the constitutional court the right to verify whether adopted laws comply with the constitution before they are signed by the president, prohibiting civil servants from holding foreign citizenship, and adding a provision to keep minimum wage and pension above the official poverty line.
In the hour-long address, Putin nonetheless avoided a clear statement about his political future, even though he was in favor of a continuous change of power, which he considers to be an “essential prerequisite for a society to develop further.” Russia was “ready” for such changes, Putin stated at the end of his speech.
What the shakeup indicates
Whether or not the resignation is part of a genuine breakup between the top of Russia’s hierarchy or part of a well-choreographed plan by Putin is uncertain at this stage.
However, with Putin’s term as president ending in 2024 and the current constitutional rules stipulate that the president may only serve two consecutive terms, the shakeup carries similarities from 2008, when Putin faced the same issue and overcame it by becoming prime minister.
With the planned changes to the constitution and the strengthening of the Duma, Putin may attempt to ensure that the power of future presidents is restricted, which is also amplified by Putin’s wish to “enshrine” the state council in the Russian constitution.
While it can only be speculated at this point, the proposed changes indicate that Putin could be preparing for his departure as president, while establishing boundaries that guarantee him to maintain his power nonetheless.
The obvious way would be to become prime minister again – who, by then, would have obtained unprecedented power due to the constitutional changes. However, there is also a different path to maintaining control for Putin and without having to deal with social and economic issues but with the country’s grand strategy only.
Putin is already the head of the Security Council as well as the State Council and could seek to obtain either position for life – but also under additional, significant powers. The fact that Medvedev is joining him as number two in the Security Council might be an indication that this option is, indeed, conceivable.
So far, Putin has de facto led Russia since January 2000 – longer than any Russian or Soviet politician since Stalin.