GP Insights # 217, 18 January 2020
In a surprise rejig of the Russian leadership, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned from his post after President Vladimir Putin announced a series of proposed constitutional amendments that curtails the power of the President and makes way for more power to the Parliament over the President.
On 14 January, President Putin in his speech at the Duma proposed to restrict the tenure of the President to two consecutive terms. Other amendments include the appointment of the Prime Minister and all ministers by the State Duma (Parliament) instead of the President, who would have no right to reject those appointments, expansion of the role of the State Council (an advisory body) and the power to form the government will rest with the legislature and not with the President.
Medvedev resigned on 15 January enabling Putin to reinstate these amendments and continued to remain as Putin's long-time ally as the newly created post of deputy head of the Presidential Security Council. Following the Prime Minister's resignation, Putin appointed a bureaucrat (tax officer), Mikhail Mishustin, as the new Prime Minister.
What is the background?
The resignation of the ruling cabinet after the President's speech comes at a time when Putin is in his last tenure as a President which ends in 2024. Hence the voluntary curtailment of the President's power and the subsequent resignation of the Prime Minister look as an engineered ploy by Putin and Medvedev to capture a more permanent seat of power.
Since Stalin, Putin has been in power longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader. Josef Stalin led from 1924 until his death in 1953. In this context, it is essential to note that this Presidency is the last route for the 67-year-old Putin to create a permanent coterie and legacy in power. The resignation of the cabinet might come as a surprise but Putin's intentions to remain in power are not unknown.
Medvedev served as a placeholder President for one term (2008 to 2012) and appointed his mentor as the Prime Minister. In this capacity, Putin wielded maximum power to the extent that Medvedev amended the constitution to lengthen the President's term from four years to six. This served well for Putin and every attempt by him since has been to keep the Russian Presidency constitutionally stronger.
Thus when Putin tailors down the role of President overturning the progress of the Russian Constitution, it signals clearly who the constitutional amendments would serve in the future: Putin.
What does it mean?
The constitutional changes will alter the roles of both the Prime Minister and the President in Russia.
First, the primary reason for restricting the power of the President and the resignation of the Prime Minister could be a symbolic yet strong message to the people that the government has acknowledged the dissatisfaction with its performance. What was evident from Putin's speech is that both the governance of Russia and the current government have been deficient. The government has been unable to check the economic decline and the number of widespread protests. Putin has reasoned the disjointed governance to the lack of a direct constitutional line between the President and the Ministers, and this would be resolved by making the Prime Minister the critical person in the policy sphere rather than the President. What is also important to note is the power politics. By reducing the position of the President, Putin is crafting out a new position of power for himself which could be of a more permanent. For example, the reshaping of the State Council could provide a slot into which a post-presidential Putin could move and give him the needed power continuity to decide on crucial policy issues.
Second, the resignation of Medvedev should be looked in the context of his long partnership with Putin. His resignation served a dual purpose: not only was he an extremely unpopular leader with the people, but he also secured an independent role of himself in the Presidential Security Council when the President himself will have a limited role to play. It is essential to reflect that both Putin and Medvedev had engineered similar cabinet rejigged in 2008 and 2011 when Putin became the Prime Minister preceding his Presidency only to buy him the time to come back in power later. Hence it is not a surprise that Medvedev will not once again side with Putin as his Presidency ends soon.
Third, the role of the technocrat in a democracy is increasingly becoming a necessary tool for regime legitimisation and stability. By replacing Medvedev with a little known yet a loyal and efficient bureaucrat was critical. Faced with repetitive protests over inflation and negative growth both Putin and Medvedev was becoming unpopular, in this context a skilled and highly educated economist with 10 years of service in the Federal Tax will go a long way in him working with the system as well as have a fair image in the public gaze. Mishustin was known to have worked to revamp the corrupt tax collection system.