President accepts PM’s resignation ahead of possible referendum of constitutional changes
Andrew Roth in Moscow – The Guardian
Vladimir Putin has embarked on a sweeping reshuffle of Russia’s leadership, accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and proposing constitutional amendments that would enable him to hold onto power even after leaving the presidency in 2024.
In a surprise move, Russia’s government said it would resign in full just hours after Putin announced plans for a national referendum that would shift power away from a successor to the presidency.
Putin’s shakeup sent shock waves through Russia’s political elites, who were left pondering what his intentions were and speculating about future cabinet appointments.
The president is laying the groundwork as he prepares for a transition in 2024 that analysts say will likely see him abandon the presidency but remain Russia’s dominant politician in a beefed-up role as Russia’s prime minister or in the government’s State Council instead.
The 67-year-old has in effect ruled Russia since 2000, making him the longest-serving leader since Stalin, and what he plans to do in 2024 remains the most important political question in the country.
In a televised speech before senior officials, Putin suggested amending Russia’s constitution to limit a future president to two terms in office – he has served four – tightening residency requirements for presidential candidates, and letting parliament choose candidates for prime minister and the cabinet, in effect weakening the presidency.
Shortly after the speech, Medvedev said that Russia’s government would resign in full, allowing Putin to appoint new ministers. Medvedev, who also announced his intention to step down, was appointed to a new position as the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, which is headed by Putin. Russian media reported that government ministers were blindsided by the decision to resign.
Russia’s tax service chief Mikhail Mishustin has been chosen by Putin as Medvedev’s replacement, the Kremlin said later on Wednesday. The 53-year-old has worked in the government since 1998 and kept a low profile while serving as the head of the Federal Tax Service since 2010.
Putin presented his amendments to the constitution as a significant change to Russia’s governing document, and called for the first nationwide referendum since 1993 to confirm them. An elections official said within an hour of Putin’s speech that a referendum could be prepared as soon as the proposals to amend the constitution were formalised.
Margarita Simonyan, the head of the RT television station, wrote that “effectively, power in Russia is moving to the legislative branch”. Less credulous observers saw an attempt by Putin to lay the groundwork for a transition of power in 2024, when he should, under the constitution, step down from the presidency after serving two terms back-to-back as Russia’s head of state.
“The main result of Putin’s speech: what idiots (and/or crooks) are all those who said that Putin would leave in 2024,” wrote Alexei Navalny, a vocal leader of Russia’s opposition.
The question of whom Putin will name as his successor has been guessed at widely.
Alexey Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based thinktank, said Putin’s constitutional amendments were an attempt to plan for his transition in 2024 and to reduce the focus on whom he would select as a successor by making that role less important.
“The president won’t be as dominating a figure [as Putin].” said Makarkin. “So the naming of his successor won’t be such a crucial decision.”
Few expect Putin will want to retire from public life, or that he could do so safely. Instead, he could become prime minister again, as he did in 2008, or follow political models from countries such as Kazakhstan, where the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down from the presidency last year but remained head of the security council and the ruling party.
“It’s still early to say what role Putin will play,” Makarkin continued. One option, he noted, would be remaining the head of the State Council, the body of top officials he addressed on Wednesday. But Putin’s remarks were a “distinct signal” that he would not remain president after his current term ends, Makarkin said.
Under term limits, Putin left the presidency for four years in 2008 in a tumultuous period during which Russia fought a war in Georgia, faced growing anti-Kremlin protests, and failed to block a Nato intervention in Libya. By 2012, Putin was back, and his temporary replacement, Dmitry Medvedev, no longer seen as a viable successor in the long term.
Russia is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in 2021, and the proposed amendments would make it doubly important for Putin to hold a loyal majority in the State Duma, perhaps forging a formal relationship with United Russia, the country’s ruling party.
Despite enjoying full-throated support from United Russia, Putin has declined to take on a leading role in the party. United Russia has often served as a punching bag for public dissatisfaction, and the party’s rating slumped below 35% after Putin announced pension reforms last year.
Expectations for Wednesday’s speech, which was relayed on a handful of electronic screens around the capital, were high.
The speech focused heavily on the themes of poverty and social support, with Putin promising additional support for families with children, in an effort to raise the country’s birth rate and higher pensions.
Still, Putin’s plan for constitutional amendments received the most attention. In the speech, he also said future presidential candidates should not hold foreign citizenship or residency permits. Judges and federal agency heads should also not hold foreign citizenship or residency permits, he said.