Vladimir Putin’s overhaul of the Russian constitution could allow him to retain his grasp on power at the end of his presidency – a move which has drawn comparisons with China’s Xi Jinping.
Putin appears to have set himself up to rule for life after announcing sweeping reforms that would effectively weaken the presidency, with his entire government resigning to clear his path.
In an address to the nation, Putin a former KGB agent – whose term ends in 2024 – described how power was being shifted from the presidency to parliament and state council.
Many suspect after Putin steps down he will take the helm of a newly strengthened council – a move which has been likened to China’s Xi Jinping, when he reformed the Asian nation’s constitution.
China’s Xi Jinping (pictured right) with Russia’s Vladimir Putin amended his nation’s constitution to remove presidential term limits – which has effectively made him ruler-for-life
Vladimir Putin delivered his state of the nation address on Wednesday. At the end he also delivered shocking reforms that announced sweeping changes to Russia’s constitution
In 2018 the Chinese leader of the ruling Communist Party had China’s constitution amended to remove presidential term limits – which has effectively served to make him ruler-for-life.
While Putin plans to impose limits to presidential terms in Russia, his other changes could still pave the way for him to extend his 20-year rule – albeit in a new capacity.
His proposals would weaken the presidency, while giving power to the parliament, the prime minister, and the state council, which at present holds an advisory role.
Putin, 67, has not said much, before now, about his intentions beyond 2024 when he has a legal obligation to step down as president. But these plans appear to indicate speculation around his intention to hold on to power in a role either as prime minister, or as supreme leader of a the new revamped State Council.
In the hours after the changes were announced Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said his resignation was necessary for Putin ‘to make all decisions’ and was installed in the mysterious position of deputy head of the presidential Security Council.
Putin’s murky reforms are expected to be a straight swap, turning the presidency into the ceremonial role so that he can become the newly-empowered prime minister.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny called the reforms ‘fraudulent crap’ that would end with Putin being ‘sole leader for life’.
Dmitry Medvedev (centre) resigned as Russia’s Prime Minister on Wednesday, saying it was necessary while President Putin reforms the country’s constitution
Analysts believe that Putin wants to transform the presidency into a ceremonial role before stepping in as newly-empowered prime minister when his term ends in 2024 – a move that would allow him to rule for life
As Medvedev’s successor, Putin nominated the little-known head of Russia’s tax service, Mikhail Mishustin (pictured)
British government sources have suggested that Putin’s hand has been forced by a rising populist movement across the globe and increased opposition among his own people.
His economy has also taken a blow from US and European sanctions so a firm grip is needed to face down any potential insurrection by the masses.
Putin said any constitutional changes would have to be put to the people in a referendum, the first that Russia will have held since 1993.
Medvedev served as president from 2008 until 2012 when Putin was forced to step down due to term limits.
When Putin returned as president in 2012, Medvedev was appointed prime minister, a position he had held ever since.
He will remain in power despite Wednesday’s resignation, as Putin appointed him to the newly-created position of deputy leader of the presidential security cabinet.
In Medvedev’s place, Putin nominated the little-known head of the Russian tax service Mikhail Mishusti.
Medvedev announced his resignation on state TV sitting next to Putin, his mentor.
Putin, who has been governing in tandem with Medvedev since 2008, thanked his former protege for his efforts but said the cabinet had ‘failed to fulfill all the objectives set for it’.
‘I want to thank you for everything that has been done, to express satisfaction with the results that have been achieved,’ Putin said.
‘Not everything worked out, but everything never works out.’
Putin has asked for the outgoing government to remain at work until a new government was appointed.
Medvedev said the government was resigning to ‘provide the president of our country with the possibility to take all the necessary measures’.
‘All further decisions will be taken by the president,’ he said.
Medvedev announced his resignation following a speech in which Putin announced he would be making changes to the constitution to empower parliament
Mikhail Mishustin: hockey-loving taxman picked by Putin as Russian PM
Regular ice hockey player Mikhail Mishustin is likely to be Russia’s next Prime Minister after Vladmir Putin put his name forward today.
The 53-year-old had headed Russia’s tax service for a decade and also has a PhD in economics.
His career started in the 1990s where he headed up an organisation set up to promote international cooperation in computing.
In 1998 he became deputy head of the tax service. He was soon appointed deputy tax minister, which he held until 2004.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (not seen) meets head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service Mikhail Mishustin in Moscow, Russia on January 15
For the next four years he headed up federal agencies and in 2008 he became president of an asset management firm.
In 2010 he was appointed the head of the tax service after he was proposed by the finance minister at the time, Alexei Kudrin.
In 2015 he was listed as Forbes’ 54th best-paid state official in 2015 with earnings of 183.31 million rubles (£2.6 million).
Following Putin’s proposal, state TV claimed he had ‘created the best tax collection system in the world.’
It is thought that he was picked to create a ‘more competent leadership’.
He is seen as a ‘neutral figure’ and has previously proposed that Russia needs to adapt its economy in order to include new and developing technology.
Mishustin told the Kommersant newspaper last year that Russia needs to adapt to the era of digital technology and artificial intelligence or fall behind.
‘This is already a digital world,’ he said.
‘If we don’t understand how this world is developing and what its rules are, if we insist our country is part of the old order, this new world will make us its victim.’
He is also a member of the supervisory council of CSKA hockey club, along with Rosneft chief Igor Sechin and other powerful figures.
The RBK business newspaper reported in 2010 that Mishustin has ‘good contacts in the law enforcement structures. He has often been seen at hockey matches with senior officials from the FSB (security service) and the interior ministry.’
Putin said Medvedev would take on a new job as deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, which Putin chairs.
The 67-year-old Putin is due to step down as president in 2024 and the Russian constitution prevents him from running for a third consecutive term.
The Russian political world is already abuzz with speculation about how Putin might stay in power, although he himself has said almost nothing on the subject.
At his annual address to lawmakers on Wednesday, he announced plans for package of reforms which could allow him to carve out a new role as a powerful PM.
Under the reforms, Putin’s successor as president would be stripped of the power to choose the prime minister.
Russia’s parliament – the State Duma – would select a prime minister and the president would not have the power to reject them, Putin said.
The changes would also give parliament the power to choose senior cabinet members, further weakening a future president’s authority.
However, the president would still be able to fire the PM – although Putin’s high approval ratings might make that politically infeasible.
Other changes would see the role of regional governors enhanced and residency requirements tightened for presidential candidates.
‘Of course these are very serious changes to the political system,’ Putin said in his address as he promised a referendum on the plans.
‘It would increase the role and significance of the country’s parliament … of parliamentary parties, and the independence and responsibility of the prime minister.’
Putin has been in power as either president or prime minister since 1999, longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader since Josef Stalin.
A former KGB officer, first took power as acting president when Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on the last day of the millennium.
After his first two terms as president ended in 2008, Putin circumvented the term limit by shifting into the prime minister’s seat while Medvedev served as president.
Putin was widely seen as pulling the strings under Medvedev, although they clashed over intervention in Libya in 2011.
In 2012 Putin returned to the top job and appointed the loyal Medvedev as prime minister.
The switch of jobs was widely seen as a cynical ploy and sparked massive protests in 2011-12 in a major challenge to the Kremlin.
Re-elected to a six-year term in 2018, Putin has seen his approval ratings fall to some of their lowest levels, though still far above those of most Western leaders.
Recent polls put Putin’s rating at 68-70 per cent, up a few points from a year ago but down from a high of more than 80 per cent at the time of his last election.
His loyalists in the United Russia party have also suffered dismal ratings and suffered badly in Moscow local elections last year.
Another option for Putin would be to merge Russia with Belarus – a process which has long been the subject of speculation – and become head of a new unified state.
Putin previously served as prime minister for four years while Medvedev was president (they are pictured together in Moscow in 2008)
Medvedev will stay on in government in the newly-created post of deputy of the presidential security cabinet (Putin and Medvedev talk in Moscow on Wednesday)
Russia is Belarus’s closest ally and the two have formed a nominal ‘union’ with close trade and military cooperation.
Putin played down such speculation last year, saying there were no plans for a merger with Belarus.
Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been more blunt, saying last year that unification ‘was not on the agenda.’
MARK ALMOND: Like Stalin, he’ll rule to the death
He likes to take the world – and Russians – by surprise. Vladimir Putin’s lengthy State of Russia speech yesterday was expected to be the usual tedious outline of statistics and policy developments.
No doubt the Kremlin audience of veteran apparatchiks planned to do their ‘sleeping-with-the-eyes-open’ trick. Then Mr Putin pulled his rabbits out of the hat.
Russia needed more democracy. Parliament should have a bigger say in choosing the government. The position of the president – all-powerful until now – should be cut down to size.
And so on… a raft of sweeping, bold constitutional change that seemed – whisper it – to be preparing Russia for life after Vladimir Putin. He even complained about how time-consuming being president of Russia is. He’s 67 after all and has been at it 24/7 for 20 years.
Russian President Vladimir Putin walks along St.George’s Hall to take part in an inauguaration ceremony in Moscow’s Kremlin, May 7, 2004
Shortly afterwards, Putin’s longtime political ally, the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, stood down – he made the announcement on TV with Putin next to him – and the entire government resigned to help ‘facilitate’ the proposed changes. It was only when Medvedev’s successor, an anonymous tax-collector, Mikhail Mishustin, was appointed, that it all started to become clear.
Anyone starting to hope Putin might be relinquishing his grip on the levers of power, in favour of spending more time at his dacha and enjoying the manly pursuits he’s famous for, was to be disappointed. Indeed, this was an audaciously disguised power grab for the future. By choosing as prime minister a person with no political standing or base in parliament, Putin was indicating that he does not intend to give up the top job.
What his proposed changes suggest is that Putin is weary of the day-to-day business of running Russia and making all the decisions great and small.
He wants to devolve administrative tasks to a new president and prime minister. By the time his current term ends in 2024, with him in his early 70s, Putin will then in all likelihood take up the role of the grand old man – perhaps the godfather is a more fitting title – of Russian politics.
An electronic screen, installed on the facade of a hotel, shows an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a quote from his annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow, Russia January 15, 2020
But make no mistake, he will still be all-powerful, the ultimate back seat driver. There are precedents for rulers being seen to step back, but continuing to pull strings from behind the scenes.
In China in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping stepped back and left day-to-day decisions to his chosen successor, Zhao Ziyang. But when Zhao made the wrong decision in the Tiananmen crisis of 1989 and talked to the student protesters, Deng deposed and replaced him.
And remember, for much of his rule, Stalin was a private citizen, neither prime minister nor president, but as general secretary of the only party in the country he ruled with an iron hand over the institutions of the Soviet Union.
Putin looks through the scope as he shoots a Chukavin sniper rifle (SVC-380) during a visit to the military Patriot Park in Kubinka, outside Moscow, on September 19, 2018
Last year Nursultan Nazarbayev, Putin’s close ally in the oil-rich former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, retired after holding the presidency since 1990. He became head of a ‘guiding’ security council and, to emphasise he was still in charge, the capital was renamed Nursultan in his honour.
I doubt Moscow will become Putingrad, but Vladimir Putin’s influence will be felt by whoever sits in the Kremlin long after 2024. Foreign policy and defence will almost certainly depend on his experience and say-so.
Putin knows that once out of power his former toadies could turn on him and discredit him by revealing dark secrets. He will want to stop that from happening for as long as he can.
So all was not what it seemed yesterday. As long as there is life in him, Vladimir Putin sees Russia’s fate intertwined with his own.
Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Centre, Oxford
Dmitry Medvedev: The lawyer who became Putin’s mentor and shared power with the president
Dmitry Medvedev, who has lost his post as prime minister following the government’s resignation, served a single term as president before standing aside to allow Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.
Subsequently the 54-year-old served as prime minister with diminishing powers and authority. In recent months, his approval rating hovered around 28 percent, according to FOM polling agency.
It’s unclear how much power Medvedev will have in the newly-created post of deputy head of the Russian security council after his momentous resignation Wednesday.
Dmitry Medvedev owes his political career to mentor Vladimir Putin, who moved the lawyer to his office when he became Russian Prime Minister in 1999
While president, Medvedev launched a campaign of modernisation to pull the country out of its post-Soviet stagnation but never escaped the shadow of his dominant mentor, to whom he remained resolutely loyal.
Medvedev was born on September 14, 1965 in Putin’s home town of Leningrad to a family of teachers, training as a lawyer and then working in the city hall for five years under Putin from 1990-1995.
He owes his entire political career to the former KGB agent.
Putin took his protege to Moscow after being appointed prime minister in 1999 and Medvedev rapidly rose to be chairman of gas giant Gazprom. He also served as chief of staff at the Kremlin and as first deputy prime minister.
Medvedev has been in lock-step with Putin ever since, swapping power with the president between 2008 and 2012 in order to skirt around term limits
Anointed successor as Putin was not allowed to stand for more than two consecutive terms, Medvedev in 2008 won presidential elections on the back of Putin’s support and his first act after taking office was to appoint the Russian strongman as prime minister.
He said Russia’s economy had reached a ‘dead end’ and required urgent reform if the country was going to move forward.
In one speech, he even seemed to compare himself to reforming Tsar Alexander II who in 1861 ordered the historic emancipation of the serfs and would ultimately be assassinated.
‘We are trying to change our economy and change our political system. In essence we are continuing a political course that was set 150 years ago. Freedom cannot be put off for another day,’ he said.
But cynics pointed out that such words counted for little when Russia was still dominated by Putin and Medvedev himself played down the idea there was any radical difference in their visions.
His trademark modernisation programme was marked by some of the boldest statements ever by a Kremlin leader but was also mercilessly mocked by commentators for being short on actions.
While liberals and the West hoped Medvedev would reverse the increase in state control and erosion of civil liberties during Putin’s previous rule, he showed little desire for a radical break with Putin’s legacy.
Medvedev as president sought to promote a welcoming image for the country and championed a ‘reset’ in relations with the United States, although his jarring statements at home appeared an attempt not to be outdone by Putin in the tough-talking stakes.
During his time as president, Medvedev promised to modernise Russia and reset relations with the US, but in reality power remained with Putin
He sent Russian troops into Georgian territory in the 2008 war with Tbilisi, a decision that temporarily wrecked relations with the West but one the president insisted he took on his own.
On his watch, Moscow also abstained in a key UN Security Council vote on Libya in 2011 which paved the way for a NATO-led military intervention that Putin has relentlessly criticised since.
Keen to leave behind a legacy in Russia, Medvedev ordered the building of a technology hub in the town of Skolkovo outside Moscow.
Often seen proudly clutching his iPad – a souvenir from a visit to Silicon Valley – he has embraced Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, in contrast to the much less tech-savvy Putin.
However he won mockery for this from some Russians, as for his habit of dropping off to sleep during dull events.
An ambitious man, Medvedev suggested he would like to return to Russia’s top job.
‘Never say never,’ he told AFP in an interview in 2012.