Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed changes to the constitution that critics say clear the way for him to remain in power beyond the end of his term, as he shook up the country’s long-static ruling structure.
Mr. Putin moved to weaken the presidency after he leaves office in 2024 and give new clout to the parliament, which is controlled by a party he founded. He also seeks to give unspecified new power to a body known as the State Council, which he chairs and which may emerge as the real centre of authority, akin to the Politburo of the former Soviet Union.
Hours after Mr. Putin spoke Wednesday on national television, prime minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that he and his entire cabinet would resign to “provide the President of our country with the ability to make all necessary decisions for this.”
That announcement was followed by Mr. Putin naming Mikhail Mishustin – a 53-year-old political unknown who had previously headed Russia’s tax service – as the country’s new Prime Minister.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the shuffling was a sign of dissent within Mr. Putin’s inner circle over the constitutional changes or the carefully orchestrated first steps in a remaking of Russia’s power structure.
The 67-year-old Mr. Putin is barred by the constitution from running for another presidential term in 2024, and the moves seem designed to ensure he can remain the country’s top political figure even if he leaves the presidency.
Diluting the presidency would fundamentally alter how Russia is run.
Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza called the changes “a full-fledged constitutional coup d’etat.”
“Putin is going for a Kazakhstan-style codification of his lifelong rule as chairman of the State Council, with a puppet president and a government appointed by the Duma [parliament], which he also fully controls,” Mr. Kara-Murza told The Globe and Mail.
Former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped aside last year after 29 years, but remains Kazakhstan’s de facto leader through his post as chairman of the country’s Security Council.
In a state-of-the-nation speech, Mr. Putin laid out the constitutional changes. Crucially, parliament – which is dominated by the United Russia party that Mr. Putin founded – would choose the prime minister and cabinet, rather than the directly elected president.
“The president would be obliged to appoint them [the parliament’s choices for prime minister and other cabinet posts] to these jobs,” Mr. Putin said. “He would not be allowed to reject candidates confirmed by parliament.”
He said the public should be given the opportunity to vote on his proposed changes in a referendum that the Kremlin signalled could happen quickly.
In 2008, when he faced the same dilemma he does now, Mr. Putin went around the constitutional prohibition on presidents serving three consecutive terms by moving to the prime minister’s office for four years, while Mr. Medvedev was elected to the presidency.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev swapped jobs again in 2012, prompting Russia’s biggest political protests since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The man who led those protests, anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny, quickly accused Mr. Putin of trying to extend his grip. “Remaining the sole leader for life, taking ownership of an entire country, and appropriating wealth to himself and his friends is the only goal of Putin and his regime,” Mr. Navalny wrote on Twitter after Mr. Putin’s speech.
After inheriting a country that often looked unruly under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has spent the past 20 years creating what he calls a “power vertical” in Russia, meaning all important decisions are concentrated in the Kremlin.
That structure potentially left Mr. Putin vulnerable to prosecution – the country’s opposition accuses Mr. Putin of overseeing a pyramid of corruption – if he simply retired from politics in 2024 and put the levers of power in the hands of a successor. Another proposed change would elevate Russian law above international law in the constitution, perhaps shielding Mr. Putin from facing international justice in the future over the country’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, or Russia’s no-holds-barred military intervention in Syria.
Sergey Utkin, the head of strategic analysis at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said that it wasn’t yet clear whether Mr. Putin intended to return to the prime minister’s job again in 2024.
“The bottom line is he is trying to establish a somewhat less president-centric system of checks and balances that would let him leave the presidency but keep the control package,” Mr. Utkin told The Globe. “The head of this State Council could have real leverage. He could also exert influence through the political party … and governors. As always, these kinds of changes are somewhat risky, even for Putin, but I think he believes dying of [old] age in the presidential office is not a good way either.”
Mr. Utkin said that Mr. Mishustin’s appointment may herald a new trend of appointing technocrats as prime minister and cabinet, while real power moves to the State Council.
Seva Gunitsky, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said Mr. Mishustin appeared to be “a safe, loyal, non-entity placeholder, someone who won’t cause any problems as things evolve toward the 2024 transition.” Prof. Gunitsky added, however, that many analysts said similar things about Mr. Putin when Mr. Yeltsin first appointed him as prime minister in 1999.
Mr. Medvedev was immediately appointed on Wednesday as deputy head of the State Council.
The 54-year-old Mr. Medvedev has been one of Mr. Putin’s closest allies, serving as his chief of staff, then first deputy prime minister, before his four-year stint as president. He is the leader of United Russia, which controls 335 of the 450 seats in the Duma and has little in the way of ideology other than supporting Mr. Putin.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, whose country has been in a state of undeclared war with Russia since the annexation of Crimea and the appearance of Russian-backed separatists who took over swaths of eastern Ukraine in 2014, said in an interview that Mr. Putin’s moves made it clear Russia was heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.
“This is just another brick in the wall they are building – if not the Iron Curtain, some other sort of curtain.”
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, January 15, 2020