Russia has a new prime minister, a change that nobody predicted just one day ago. The old Dmitry Medvedev has been replaced by a man that most people had never heard of, until now.
Not only that, President Vladimir Putin has initiated a major reform of the constitution that seems the beginning of his “transition”: a long-awaited plan to retain influence when he has to leave the Kremlin in 2024.
The details of that plan are still unclear, but this week’s surprise shake offers curious new clues.
Why did the prime minister have to leave?
Mr. Medvedev’s departure was a shock, or at least, the moment of it. But it seems that he has become the man of the fall of his boss once again.
He has long been a faithful companion of Vladimir Putin, most controversial when he kept the Kremlin warm, as president, for four years until the constitution allowed Putin to return in 2012. Now he is taking the blame for Russia’s economic problems.
- What is the Russian Putin doing?
The patriotic “bump” on the annexation of Crimea in 2014 has vanished, and for many families there is no replacement balm for the harsh realities of life. Putin’s speech on the state of the nation this year recognized that, focusing heavily on well-being rather than the shaking of sabers in the West.
So he brought a new man to solve the economy, and state television has been sending positive messages. Mikhail Mishustin, the Russians say, is experienced and capable.
The shock buys time and goodwill before next year’s critical elections to parliament, where the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, is likely to have difficulties.
But it also helps to buy support for Putin’s most important changes.
What exactly does Mr. Putin want to do the constitution?
Vladimir Putin presents his constitutional reform along the same lines as the prime minister’s exchange.
The changes imply a rebalancing of responsibility, a little less for the president, more for the parliament. Putin has explained it as bringing power to the people: parliamentarians will have more voice in government formation, for example.
He argues that it is more democratic and will be more effective.
But most commentators see it as a masking of another agenda: Vladimir Putin, who plays a suitable role for when he has to pack and leave the Kremlin. After two decades in power, he has interests and allies, a whole system, to protect. You may not want to bother more with the daily operation of the country, but it is unlikely to fade completely.
The role of the little noticed State Council could be central to its future.
Putin is already his boss, and now he plans to consecrate the council in the constitution. It is only an advisory body for now. Improved, it could be a way to keep pulling the threads of power. Think of Raúl Castro, who moves away from the Cuban presidency, but is still the powerful GenSec Communist Party. Or the Kazakh model, closer to home, where Nursultan Nazarbayev remained head of the security council and “Leader of the nation” for life.
Vladimir Putin could be looking for his way to become the supreme leader of Russia.
Can’t you stay as president?
It was speculated that Putin could simply eliminate the two term limit for president in the constitution. Nothing is ever ruled out, but that would be very controversial even in Russia’s managed democracy.
When Putin and Dmitry Medvedev made their seat change in 2012, they caused giant street protests. There were more demonstrations in favor of the opposition this summer.
The Kremlin probably wants to avoid more of the same, especially in a difficult economic climate.
It is believed that Putin is looking for a flexible replacement for himself: Putin II. There is still a chance that Medvedev can make a comeback for that role. He has been set aside, not ashamed, after all. It is also possible that the new Prime Minister Mishustin is president on hold. But after this week, Vladimir Putin seems more likely to surprise us.
How or when will we know your plans?
Putin is still four years old at work, so there is no major hurry with constitutional changes, although events have moved unusually fast lately.
He has established a working group, composed of 75 people, to develop concrete proposals for reforms, and has already given his instructions. Around a giant table, Putin warned the team to deal with “every letter, every comma,” since his work refers to the fundamental law of the land.
Once the proposals are made, your vision should be clearer. Some type of public confirmation vote is expected before summer. However, the Kremlin has ruled out a formal referendum. It would be risky.
Despite all that is talked about democracy, Putin would not want his grand plan, when it finally comes, be rejected.