Putin makes his move

President Vladimir Putin has begun to make changes to the structure of the Russian government. Some sort of move had been expected as he is currently term limited and must leave office at the end of his term in 2024.

The changes are described as being a shift in power from the Presidency to Parliament and the current government, headed by Dmitry Medvedev, has resigned. President Putin will take over the powers of the Prime Minister in the interim.

It is being proposed that the changes will be put to a national referendum – a suggestion which is not strictly necessary according to the current rules but which would entrench the new system.

With Putin set to relinquish the Presidency in 2024, the most common parlour game in Russia in recent times has to predict the mechanism by which he would seek to hang on to power. A constitutional change – either to allow him to run for a third consecutive term or to change the power structure – was the favourite option. Other proposals talked about were a new federation with a former Soviet state such as Belarus or for Putin to follow the lead of Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and take a behind the scenes role while maintaining real power. Proposals for closer ties with Belarus were recently discussed but put on the back burner.

Whether Medvedev’s resignation is a clue that he is unhappy with the changes or that Putin was unhappy with him is unclear. Political analysts in Russia have made both suggestions. Mr Medvedev will become deputy head of the National Security Council, a body chaired by the President.

If the constitutional changes are approved by the public then it is likely that Putin will choose to take on a Parliamentary role, either as Speaker of the Duma or as Prime Minister – although the latter will be appointed by the Duma, a subordination that the current president may feel is not appropriate for his image. In either case, attention will now turn to parliamentary elections due next year. United Russia, the dominant political forced for more than 17 years, has effectively been abandoned by President Putin and has taken the blame as his popularity has waned. The most recent regional and local elections has seen a focus on loyalist candidates running as independents. Whether this strategy can work for a national vote remains to be seen. The alternative is the promotion of an alternative party or group of loyalist parties that will support Mr Putin in whatever role he chooses.

In his speech to lawmakers today, President Putin also proposed to tighten the rules for future presidential candidates to limit them to two terms in total (he has served four having swapped jobs with Medvedev between 2008 and 2012) and tightening residency requirements.

However the full proposed changes to the constitution have yet to be detailed and no date for a referendum has been given. It is possible that when further proposals are revealed another option for Russia’s leading man will become apparent.


UPDATE: Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center has tweeted the following thoughts:

Putin made it clear in his state of the nation address today that this is the official start of the transition of power, in preparation for him stepping down when his current terms ends in 2024. He suggests amending the constitution via a referendum to approve those changes. That way, it will be harder for the opposition and foreign powers to argue with the move to change the constitution.

The rule against 2 consecutive presidential terms will be changed to just 2 presidential terms. There can be no second Putin. Putin’s four terms were needed to help the country recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. From now on, the maximum reign will be 12 years. This means that if Medvedev returns to the presidency, he can only serve one term, having already kept the seat warm for Putin from 2008-2012.

The powers that Putin has amassed will not be passed on intact either. Instead, they will be shared out. Parliament will confirm the prime minister and other ministers, and the president cannot reject parliament’s choices—though he or she can dismiss them. The president will be weaker, and it’s beyond doubt now (despite earlier speculation that he would somehow stay on) that that president will no longer be Putin.

The State Council, on the other hand, will have increased powers, with Putin calling for “the status and role of the State Council to be enshrined in the constitution.” This could well be where Putin goes in 2024.

Putin also said the role of regional governors should be strengthened. Firstly, they are members of the state council. Secondly, a successor to Putin may have to be selected from among them.

Future presidents will have to have lived in Russia for 25 years without a break and have never had a foreign passport or residency permit. If this includes temporary permits such as for students, this would exclude Alexei Navalny (who has studied at Yale) from running.

The Russian constitution will be above any international legal obligations, so farewell to the European Court of Human Rights and Council of Europe. There’ll be no more help from abroad. Overall, people will likely vote for these changes with great enthusiasm.