Russians woke up this morning for a new prime minister and much confusion about a new constitutional process that seems to have been designed to get Vladimir Putin’s status to the top of the political pyramid of Russia for the rest of his life.
“His goal is to remain number one, the most important decision maker in Russia, to keep Russia stable, to keep the elites loyal and to keep the public in line with Kremlin policies,” said Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst connected to The Carnegie Center in Moscow.
Wednesday was an unprecedented day of political surprises in Moscow, when Putin revealed his proposals to change the Russian constitution, giving him various options to extend his 20-year reign indefinitely.
A few hours later, the second most powerful man in the country, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, resigned and took the entire Russian cabinet with him.
In last night’s act, Putin appointed a little-known bureaucrat, tax commissioner Mikhail Mishustin, as the new prime minister, a position that was confirmed today by the Russian parliament. Western reporters have noted that Mishustin was so obscure that he didn’t even have his own Wikipedia article before yesterday’s surprising appointment.
The question of what Putin will do after his presidential term of office ends in 2024 has arisen across the country since he won the 2018 re-election.
Putin nominated the unknown bureaucrat Mikhail Mishustin for the position of prime minister. (Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters)
Currently, the Constitution prohibits the search for a third consecutive term, but instead of changing that specific clause, Putin proposed a series of dramatic revisions that could ultimately change the nature of the country’s power.
The measures are “striking,” said Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College in London. “This is a risk-avers system that likes to prevent sudden movements.”
Putin is more than just the president – it often seems that no other political figure in Russia matters.
Almost every major political appointment or decision flows through his Kremlin office. And once a year he holds a nationwide telephone show where Russians call and beg him to solve their problems, from medical care to potholes on the street.
As part of his proposed package of constitutional reforms, Putin proposes to transfer some presidential powers to other branches of government, in particular the Duma, or the parliament, as well as a rather obscure institution known as the Council of State.
Lipman said it seems that Putin is taking the first steps to ensure that when he leaves the presidency, he has a new position to enter – and that the person succeeding him will have his wings cut.
In 2024, “someone else will become president of Russia, and that person will not be … so powerful,” Lipman said.
No peaceful retirement
It is unclear what task Putin has in mind for himself, although liberally inclined critics believe whatever it is, Putin will ensure that he retains some control over the police or the judiciary.
Strongmen rarely receive peaceful retirement, said Abbas Gallyanov, a Moscow-based political consultant. “With so many powerful people who hate (Putin), he cannot rule out revenge.”
Once a Kremlin speech writer, Gallyanov said that he became disillusioned with Putin when he put Russia on a path to authoritarianism.
This electronic screen, installed on the facade of a hotel, shows an image of Putin and a quote of his state of the union on January 15. (Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters)
“He made so many enemies inside and outside Russia, he would not feel safe. So he needs political power to protect himself.”
The old ruler of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, opted for a similar arrangement when he resigned from the presidency in 2018. He appointed a successor but stepped into a new position on the country’s security council, a job he can keep until he dies and helps him stay in control of security services.
Although it was expected that Putin would eventually give some indication of his plans after 2024, the resignation of Medvedev surprised the country.
The Russian state television, which often displays the stories and messages from the Kremlin, was surprisingly quiet about its fate and how it was to be interpreted.
Medvedev told the Russian media that he resigned to give Putin room to implement the changes he deemed necessary. There was no explanation as to why his departure was necessary for this.
Medvedev slipped into the President’s work in 2008, when Putin left after two terms. Once Putin decided that he wanted the position as early as 2012, he appointed Medvedev as prime minister and it has been speculated that Medvedev could return to the job as soon as Putin leaves.
As the Russian economy has stagnated and issues such as pension reforms have taken people’s real incomes away, it was Medvedev – and not Putin – who suffered the backlash. Opinion polls rank Medvedev routinely as one of the most unpopular politicians in the country.
“The role of Medvedev in Russian politics from the moment he was president has been the man being sewn,” said Greene. “It’s his job and he’s doing well.”
This is why Greene believes that the resignation of Medvedev is part of a larger Putin plan that will eventually end when Medvedev returns to a key role.
“I would not expect a radical change right away. People who are in power will continue to hold power.”
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned on Wednesday. (Sputnik / Dmitry Astakhov / Pool via Reuters)
There are signs that uncertainty about Putin’s long-term plans began to cause friction in the cliques that are on top of Russia’s power structure and dominate major bureaucracies and industries.
The government’s response to last summer’s street protests about rigging elections in the country’s capital seemed particularly dysfunctional.
After thousands of protesters took to the streets in Moscow, the authorities initially took a hands-off approach. But then the security services quickly changed their approach and made hundreds of arrests, with some demonstrators receiving multi-year prison sentences. Then the government turned around, when protesters were released and many had their sentences converted or rejected.
At the time, commentators suggested that the reaction was indicative of various government cabinets trying to strengthen their influence and jockey for future positions in post-Putin Russia.
“At the moment, (Putin’s) seems to be focusing on dealing with challenges he has with the elite,” Greene said.
A stagnating economy and declining incomes have pushed the Kremlin in defense. Even in the Russian system of “managed democracy,” where opposition parties are restricted and state television dominates the political debate, Greene said it is essential for Putin’s future to remain personally popular.
“He must keep the system legitimate by keeping people happy and retaining its popularity, given that the rest of the political elite are not popular. And he must maintain the confidence of the elite so that he protects their interest and leaves enough money to keep everyone happy. “