Russians awoke this morning to a new prime minister and much confusion about a new constitutional process that appears designed to entrench Vladimir Putin’s status at the top of Russia’s political pyramid for the rest of his life.
“His goal is to remain the number-one, most important decision maker in Russia, to keep Russia stable, to keep the elites loyal and to keep the public acquiescent to the Kremlin’s policies,” said Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst affiliated with Moscow’s Carnegie Centre.
Wednesday was an unprecedented day of political surprises in Moscow, as Putin unveiled his proposals to change Russia’s constitution, thereby allowing him several avenues to extend his 20-year reign indefinitely.
Then, a few hours later, the second most powerful man in the country, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, resigned, taking the entire Russian cabinet with him.
In the final act last night, Putin appointed a little known bureaucrat, tax commissioner Mikhail Mishustin, as the new PM, a position that confirmed by Russia’s parliament today. Western reporters have noted that Mishustin was so obscure, he didn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry before yesterday’s surprise appointment.
The question of what Putin will do after his presidential term expires in 2024 has loomed over the country since he won re-election in 2018.
He is currently barred under the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, but rather than changing that specific clause, Putin put forward a series of dramatic overhauls that could eventually change the very nature of how power is wielded in the country.
The measures are “striking,” said Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College in London. “This is a risk-averse system that likes to avoid sudden moves.”
Putin is more than simply the president — it often seems that no other political figure in Russia matters.
Virtually every significant political appointment or decision flows through his Kremlin office. And once a year, he holds a nationwide phone-in show where Russians call and plead with him to fix their problems, from medical care to potholes on their street.
As part of his proposed package of constitutional reforms, Putin is suggesting to devolve some presidential powers to other branches of the government, notably the Duma, or parliament, as well as a fairly obscure institution known as the State Council.
Lipman said it appears Putin is taking the first steps to ensuring that when he leaves the presidency, he has a new position to move into — and that whoever succeeds him will have his wings clipped.
In 2024, “someone else will be president of Russia, and that person will not be … as powerful,” said Lipman.
No peaceful retirement
Precisely what job Putin has in mind for himself is unclear although liberal-leaning critics believe whatever it is, Putin will ensure he maintains some control of either the police or judiciary.
Strongmen rarely get peaceful retirements, said Abbas Gallyanov, a Moscow-based political consultant. “With so many powerful people hating [Putin], he cannot rule out that revenge will come.”
Once a Kremlin speech writer, Gallyanov said he became disillusioned with Putin once he put Russia on a path toward authoritarianism.
“He made so many enemies inside and outside of Russia, he wouldn’t feel secure. So he needs political power to protect himself.”
Kazakhstan’s long-time ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, opted for a similar arrangement when he stepped down from the presidency in 2018. He appointed a successor but moved into a new position on the country’s security council, a job that he can keep until he dies and helps him to maintain control of the security services.
While it was expected that Putin would eventually give some indication of his post-2024 plans, Medvedev’s resignation caught the country by surprise.
Russian state TV, which often echoes the Kremlin’s narratives and messaging, was surprisingly silent on his fate and how it should be interpreted.
Medvedev told Russian media that he was resigning to give Putin leeway to make the changes he felt are needed. There was no explanation about why his departure was necessary to do that.
Medvedev slid into the president’s job in 2008, when Putin left after two terms. Once Putin decided he wanted the position back in 2012, he appointed Medvedev as prime minister and there has been speculation that Medvedev might move back into the job once Putin leaves.
As Russia’s economy has stagnated and issues such as pension reforms have taken a bite out of people’s real incomes, it was Medvedev — not Putin — who bore the brunt of the backlash. Opinion polls routinely rank Medvedev as one of the country’s most unpopular politicians.
“Medvedev’s role in Russian politics ever since he was president has been to be the guy who gets screwed,” said Greene. “It’s his job and he does it well.”
This is why Greene believes Medvedev’s resignation is part of a larger Putin plan that will ultimately end with Medvedev returning to a key role.
“I wouldn’t expect a radical change overnight. People who are in power will continue to hold power.”
There have been signs that the uncertainty over Putin’s long-term plans were beginning to cause friction within the cliques that sit atop Russia’s power structure and dominate its major bureaucracies and industries.
The government’s response to last summer’s street protests over election rigging in the country’s capital appeared especially dysfunctional.
After thousands of protesters took to the streets in Moscow, authorities initially took a hands-off approach. But then security services quickly changed tack, making hundreds of arrests, with some protesters getting multi-year jail sentences. Then, the government did an about-face, as protesters were released and many had their sentences commuted or dismissed altogether.
At the time, commentators suggested the response was indicative of different cabals within the government trying to assert their influence and jockey for future positions in a post-Putin Russia.
“At the moment, [Putin’s] focus seems to be on dealing with challenges he has with the elite,” said Greene.
A stagnant economy and declining incomes have put the Kremlin on the defensive. Even in Russia’s system of “managed democracy,” where opposition parties are restricted and state television dominates the political discussion, Greene said it is essential for Putin’s future to remain personally popular.
“He has to keep the system legitimate by keeping people happy and maintaining his popularity, given that the rest of the political elite are not popular. And he has to maintain the trust of the elite so that he protects their interest and keeps enough money flowing around to keep everyone happy.”