A screen in the media room broadcasts Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, speaking during his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.
Russia saw extreme political upheaval on Wednesday with constitutional reforms announced by President Vladimir Putin leading to the resignation of government.
By the end of the day, Putin had also proposed a new prime minister and political commentary was rife with speculation over the strongman’s strategy and grip on power.
The day started with Putin giving his annual address to lawmakers and members of the elite in which he announced a national referendum on the reforms that would seek to limit presidential power and hand more control to parliament. One notable change would be that the Duma (Russia’s parliament), rather than the president, would appoint any prime minister.
Putin also suggested limiting future presidential terms to just two. Like the U.S., future presidents would have no possibility to return after these two terms (as he himself has done). Potential new powers for the State Council, an advisory body to the Kremlin led by Putin, were also outlined. But there was little detail on what the changes could mean for Putin’s future role in public life.
Soon after, and with little warning, the government resigned to help implement the changes. As Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned on state television, with Putin sitting beside him, he said that the changes would “introduce substantial changes not only to an entire range of articles of the constitution, but also to the entire balance of power, the power of the executive, the power of the legislature, the power of judiciary.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Russian Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev are seen at a meeting with the government, following Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly, in Moscow, Russia on January 15, 2020.
Putin then appointed Medvedev as his deputy within the state’s Security Council and swiftly nominated Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the Federal Tax Service, as the country’s new prime minister.
The announcements from Putin — the longest-serving Russian leader since Stalin, having occupied the presidential and prime ministerial offices alternatively for 20 years — prompted widespread speculation as to Russia’s political future, and Putin’s, after his current term in office ends in 2024.
What is Putin up to and what does it all mean? Here’s a selection of comment and analysis from experts on what the changes could mean:
What do the reforms mean?
“Putin proposed a referendum on a package of constitutional changes, which would reshape the balance of power in the country’s political system,” Andrius Tursa, Central & Eastern Europe Advisor at Teneo Intelligence, said in a note late Wednesday.
“The key suggested amendments would curb the extensive presidential influence by extending the role of Duma and regional governors, while the mandate of the largely symbolic State Council would be specified (and potentially strengthened) in the constitution.”
All this suggests that Putin is intending to remain in power after his second term in office expires in 2024, Tursa said.
“The proposed constitutional amendments, however, say little on what position he would undertake post-2024, as he could become the head of government, the speaker of the parliament or remain the chairman of the strengthened Security Council.”
“It’s probably not the case that Putin has a definite end-state planned right now,” Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and Principal Russia Analyst, Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC Thursday.
“The beauty of the constitutional reforms … (are) that it gives him a number of different possible perches where he can sit within the elite to continue to exercise influence of control over the political process after his current terms ends in 2024.”
Influence after 2024
“These developments should be seen in the context of the “2024 problem”—the question of what will happen at the end of Putin’s current presidential term,” analysts at Eurasia Group said in a note late Wednesday.
“The planned changes to the constitution add to our conviction that Putin intends to step down as president in 2024. But by clipping the wings of his successor, Putin is providing scope for himself to retain influence for himself after he leaves office.”
“I would say that he’s (Putin’s) trying to ensure that no one ever comes in who is more powerful than he was,” Gina Sanchez, chief executive of Chantico Global, told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe.
“So, he’s weakening the presidency. The Russian presidency is one of the strongest in the world that has powers that can be unchecked so he is creating these checks (on power), but in many ways he’s actually simply ensuring that, post his 2024 departure, that he can maintain a voice in the government and have a weak presidency that cannot overshadow that voice.”
“He’s weakening the presidency and no one can argue that that’s a bad reform, but he’s doing it for the purposes of ensuring his own legacy,” she added.
Medvedev the fall guy?
“You could argue that for the past eight years, Medvedev’s job description has been taking the blame,” Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and Principal Russia Analyst, Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC Thursday.
“And this is the kind of ultimate accrual of that in him being pensioned off to a somewhat less influential position. There is a sense that Putin doesn’t really have much of an interest in domestic politics, particularly when we’re talking about the grind of rather unpopular domestic political issues, such as pension reform or reforming the somewhat stagnant economy. These aren’t as exciting issues like Syria or geopolitics.”
Jason Bush, Alex Brideau, and Zachary Witlin, senior analysts at Eurasia Group, remarked in a note Wednesday Medvedev’s move out of the premiership “is not necessarily the demotion it appears at first glance,” however.
“If anything, Medvedev’s departure from the government gives him a chance to refurbish his image,” they said.
“The job of prime minister is a poisoned chalice: Medvedev was blamed by the public for unpopular domestic policies, such as 2018 reforms to the pension system. His new remit in the Security Council on defense and foreign affairs will present him to the public in a more positive light. At the very least, it looks like Medvedev is being given a chance to hone his qualifications to serve again as president.”
Who is Mishustin?
“Mishustin is an interesting guy,” Ariel Cohen, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told CNBC Thursday.
“This is the first time Russia has not only an economist but a big data-based guy in charge. He ran the Russian tax authority and made it very, very efficient – one of the best in the world … He has a reputation as a modern, effective manager but not (a reputation) as a possible successor to Mr Putin.”
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) and Mikhail Mishustin, former head of the Russian Federal Tax Service, and now prime prime minister, during a meeting at Moscow’s Kremlin.
“The proposed cabinet leader Mikhail Mishustin (independent) will likely focus on socioeconomic issues, which dominated President Vladimir Putin’s annual address … . In the near-term, Mishustin’s administration will likely get a popularity boost from multiple family-oriented social spending measures outlined by president,” Andrius Tursa, Central & Eastern Europe Advisor at Teneo Intelligence, said in a note.
“However, in the medium-term the new administration will face the difficult task of reviving the country’s stagnant economy and regaining public trust.”