Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and all of his government Ministers resigned today. When a major figure in the US government resigns it’s usually to signal opposition to some action taken by the President. Not so in this case. Medvedev resigned hours after President Putin announced plans to make major changes to the Russian constitution. Those changes are still a bit vague at this point but the general thrust is to reduce the power of future presidents:
The Russian leader proposed a national vote on constitutional changes that would push power toward the prime minister and the parliament, and away from the presidency. It’s seen as potentially limiting the power of Putin’s successor if he steps down in 2024.
“After those amendments are adopted … there will be significant changes not only to a variety of constitution articles, but to the balance of power, namely to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power,” Medvedev said, according to Tass.
Why would Putin want to reduce the power of the position he now holds? Probably because he can’t remain in that position much longer. The Russian President is limited by the constitution to two consecutive terms. When Putin reached that limit in 2008, he simply swapped jobs with Medvedev, becoming the country’s Prime Minister from 2008-2012. Then Putin returned as President for a six year term. He won another six-year term in 2018 which means he will once again have to leave his position in 2024.
In his annual address to the Federal Assembly earlier Wednesday, Putin said he agreed that no one should serve as president for more than two consecutive terms, and proposed several constitutional amendments.
His key proposal is to transfer the power to select the prime minister and cabinet from the president to the parliament.
“I know that a constitutional provision is being discussed in our society that the same person should not be president for more than two consecutive terms,” Putin said. “I don’t think this is a fundamental issue, but I agree with that,” he said.
“I propose … entrusting the State Duma with the power to approve the candidacy of the prime minister, and then, per the prime minister’s proposal, [appoint] all deputy prime ministers and federal ministers,” Putin said. “In this case, the president will be obliged to appoint them, that is, he will not have the right to reject parliament-approved candidacies.”
If Putin won’t abolish term limits then he probably plans to move back over to Prime Minister. He’s laying the groundwork to make that position more powerful at the expense of the future President. Something like the changes Putin suggested today was put forward last July by Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament.
The leading alternative solution to Putin’s 2024 problem was for Russia to unite with Belarus which would allow Putin to reset the term limit clock as President of a new entity, but merger talks with Belarus haven’t amounted to much.
Putin’s real problem is that he’s not as popular as he used to be, thanks in part to poor economic growth in Russia. The poor economy is partly the result of sanctions on the country instituted after the annexation of Crimea. The shake-up announced today not only potentially solves Putin’s 2024 problem but could allow him to sell the changes internally and externally as a new, more responsive government:
Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, said the changes could be seen as Putin trying to refresh things with a new prime minister and government.
″(They’ll be) more focus on reform, and improving the effectiveness of government to deliver growth and improving living standards,” Ash said in a research note immediately after the news…
“I think all this is a response to opinion polls reflecting popular dissatisfaction with government and their lots in life, and ebbing support even for Putin,” Ash wrote. “In terms of timing, Putin has waited until what he sees as the external risks from sanctions moderating. He will sell this new, fresh government as part of a fresh start/reach out to the West.”
Putin has now been in power since 2000, longer than any leader since Stalin. Opposition figure Alexei Navalny tells the Guardian that the real message of the proposed changes is that Putin isn’t leaving power: “The main result of Putin’s speech: what idiots (and/or crooks) are all those who said that Putin would leave in 2024.”