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Putin Calls For Systemic Change. The ‘System’ Quickly Responds.

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin called for “serious changes to the political system” during his state-of-the-nation address on January 15, and the “system” didn’t take long to respond.

Within two hours of his speech, Russia’s government had resigned, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev appeared headed for a new role in the Security Council, and speculation that Putin was laying the groundwork to retain power after his term ends in 2024 was mounting.

Putin had proposed a raft of constitutional changes during his 90-minute speech before hundreds of officials gathered in Moscow’s Manezh Exhibition Center, including transferring power to appoint prime ministers from the president to parliament, and limiting the supremacy of international law over Russia’s constitution.

Not long after, Medvedev sat alongside Putin during a meeting held after the event and appeared to endorse whatever moves the president had in mind.

“In this context, it’s clear that we, as the government of the Russian Federation, should give the president of our country the chance to take all necessary decisions,” Medvedev said in announcing his resignation.

Within hours, Putin appointed Mikhail Mishustin, who had been serving as the head of the Federal Tax Service, to replace Medvedev as prime minister, pending State Duma approval.

Medvedev has been tapped to serve in the Security Council as deputy chairman, a new position.

The question of Putin’s post-2024 role in Russia has preoccupied residents and observers of the country since he returned for a fourth presidential term in 2018, his final before the constitution mandates he step down in 2024.

Mikhail Mishustin attends a meeting with Putin at the Kremlin on January 15.

Putin’s reelection for a third term in 2012 came after a four-year stint as prime minister allowed him to legally seek a return to the presidency. Medvedev, a protege who temporarily replaced Putin as president, extended the length of Russian presidential terms to six years from four. That enabled Putin to serve two more terms as president, another 12 years in total.

The Kremlin has been coy about its plans beyond 2024, despite widespread expectations that Russia’s political future would be decided within its walls.

Following Putin’s speech, few observers had any doubt that the changes to come would be significant.

“The power transition has begun,” Aleksei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, told RFE/RL. “Russia’s super-presidential republic will become a presidential one.”

By buttressing parliament’s role, Makarkin said, Russia was moving toward a greater balance between its various branches of government. But while the president would no longer appoint the prime minster, the office would nonetheless retain sweeping powers, he added, conceding “it’s too early” to make strict predictions.

“At the end of the day, this is and remains a risk-averse system of power, the cardinal rule of which is not fixing things that aren’t broken,” Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College in London, said before Medvedev’s resignation. “Putin and the elites whose interests he protects know that centralizing power in the presidency works, more or less.”

I don’t think it will come to a referendum. There are other forms of discussion.”

Indeed, Putin specified during his address that “Russia should remain a strong presidential republic,” while appearing to circumscribe the powers of his eventual successor. He also made clear that any changes to the constitution will be subject to a referendum.

“The opinion of people — of our citizens of our nation as the bearer of sovereignty and main source of power — should be decisive,” he said. “Everything is ultimately decided by the people.”

The head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Yelena Pamfilova, said she’s on standby to organize the vote but suggested the changes may well be implemented without a referendum being held at all.

“I don’t think it will come to a referendum. There are other forms of discussion,” she told Interfax.

Since Putin’s latest reelection, in 2018, to a fourth and apparently final term, several highly placed officials — including the parliament speaker and Russia’s chief justice — have hinted at the possibility of amending the Russian Constitution in a way that could bestow upon Putin an alternative role at Russia’s helm or extend his presidency beyond 2024.

During a marathon press conference in December, Putin also hinted that the constitution could be changed, suggesting the word “consecutive” could be removed from a constitutional clause that states no individual can serve beyond two consecutive presidential terms.

“Your humble servant served two successive terms and then stepped down and had the constitutional right to return to the post of president,” he said at the time. “But some of our political scientists and activists do not like this and maybe this could be removed, possibly.”

The ambiguous comment immediately prompted Kremlin watchers and Twitter denizens to speculate on what the Russian president meant: Was he paving the way to legally retain power beyond 2024 or circumscribing the powers of his successor?

Returning to that discussion in his state-of-the-nation address, Putin said he agreed that no individual should serve more than two consecutive terms as president, but added: “I don’t think it’s a fundamental question.”

In his speech on January 15, Putin appeared to end speculation that this would be a path he’d follow. But for some, it served as confirmation that he was seeking a way to stay in power beyond his current term, even if he’d no longer, officially, be president.

“He wants to organize a power transition while retaining control over the political situation for the foreseeable future,” said Makarkin, citing the example of Nursultan Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan, who resigned in March after nearly 30 years as president but continues to head the ruling party and chair that country’s influential Security Council.

Of course, after two decades ruling Russia as either president or prime minister, Putin’s statements on the need for a power transition, even if genuine, struck many as hypocritical — especially when coupled with promises of addressing wage stagnation delivered to a room filled with officials accused of rampant corruption and of holding undeclared assets at home and abroad.

After the president called for reforms to Russia’s education system, perhaps the most scathing indictment of the political system he oversees came from Aleksandr Gorbunov, a wheelchair-bound 27-year-old who has emerged as one of Putin’s most acerbic critics.

“Billionaires with unlimited power who have ruled the country for 20 years as they like are sitting in the hall promising to arrange hot meals for school students,” he wrote.

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Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

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