Twenty years after he became president, Vladimir Putin is proposing changes to the constitution and the power structure. Patriarch Kirill gives the move his seal of approval. Dmitri Medvedev remains Putin’s deputy, but trades in his cap as prime minister for that of deputy chair of the Security Council. An unknown bureaucrat, Mikhail Mishustin, is appointed prime minister.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – In his annual speech to the nation before Russia’s Federal Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin has set the stage for an unknown change of regime, but one still linked to himself 20 years after he came to power. Following the address, Prime Minister Medvedev and his cabinet resigned.
Given the importance of the address, Patriarch of Moscow Kirill (Gundyaev) cut short his Christmas break to be present, along with other high Church leaders, at the solemn ceremony in which the president issued his ukase[*] announcing changes to the constitution.
More than 1,300 people, the country's elite, attended the event. The crowd was so big that no room in the Duma could fit them, so the speech was delivered in Moscow’s Manege Central Exhibition Hall, not far from Red Square.
Quickly, the Patriarchate issued a statement in support of the president’s “attention to traditional values” and a speech ostensibly focused from the start on protecting the people and the citizens in both material and non-material terms. For the Church, the references to the unity of training and education are important, so much so that the presidential message can be seen as the mark of great statesman and national leader.
For ordinary Russians however, the central issue remains power politics as well as the government’s handling of the economy at a time when its performance is increasingly bad for the lower classes and pensioners.
With a two-term limit on the presidential mandate, Putin cannot be re-elected. His proposal calls for expanding the role of parliament and the cabinet, thus ensuring that no one else can succeed him in wielding the same powers.
Hitherto, the most important appointments in the government and the regions have been Putin’s prerogative during his 20-year autocratic rule. This will no longer be the case in the future, as counterweights and crossed vetoes are added to the machinery of power.
Putin’s plans include a Council of State with new but still undefined powers. At present, the latter is only an advisory body attached to the presidency, operating like the Politburo of Soviet times, a seat of power and control acting at the behest of Russia's ideology and "supreme values".
If adopted, constitutional changes will also reverse the relationship between international and national legislation with the latter trumping the former, something advocated for years by Russia’s nationalists, and which Putin acted out when he seized Crimea. Russia’s increased military clout, which Putin has flexed on several occasions, has in fact allowed him to show his contempt for international conventions.
Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s resignation is an important aspect of Putin’s power play. As an alternative, the now former head of government was offered the post of deputy president of Russia’s security council.
Between 2008 and 2012 Medvedev stood in as president for Putin, at a time when liberalisation seemed to be just on the horizon. Once in power, he did not however deliver on such expectations. Instead, he antagonised many Russians, especially among the young, for his conduct as a powerful satrap.
In the past eight years, Medvedev’s administration was saddled with the worst economy of Putin’s two decades of power, due to its poor performance and western sanctions. Conversely, his new appointment confirms his role as Putin’s deputy for all seasons.
The post of prime minister went instead to an obscure Putin bureaucrat, Mikhail Mishustin (pictured left), hitherto head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service. Unknown quantity to most, Mishustin hasn’t sparked any negative reactions in public opinion. Hence, his appointment appears to be an attempt to placate widespread resentment and counter accusations of corruption from political groups like the one led by Alexei Navalny.
The new prime minister is a crony of economist Alexey Kudrin, who is the chairman of Russia’s Accounts Chamber and a former deputy prime minister and finance minister.
In doing so, Putin is sending the signal that he shares Kudrin’s approach in favour of a certain political and economic liberalisation. At the same time, he is resolving some latent conflicts within the government between Medvedev’s advocacy for a quasi-one-party state, and Sergey Kiriyenko, a former prime minister under Yelstin, who supports greater political pluralism.
The coming days will tell in what direction the winds are blowing as a new cabinet takes office. One thing is for sure: Putin’s cronies Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu are almost certainly going to be re-appointed.
As things stand, the future is likely to see Putin still holding the reins of power, like the former president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev, a Central Asian potentate and a model for the leaders of the more conservative post-Soviet republics.
It remains to be seen however whether Putin will chair the Council of State, with this more symbolic and "sacred" role, like that of the old tsars, or become head of government after 2024, showing again that he is still the only true leader of Russia. This will very much depend on the economy. If its decline continues, Putin is unlikely to want to get his hands dirty again.
The outcome of these changes will be subject to a referendum, albeit not a real one. But going for it now, Putin is evidently trying to capitalise on the still considerable albeit declining support he enjoys in the country before divisions in Russian society become too wide.
[*] Decree or edict proclaimed by the tsar in Imperial Russia.