President Vladimir Putin once again surprised everyone by using his annual address to a joint session of both houses of parliament to announce constitutional changes, a government reshuffle and the ouster of his long-time loyal subordinate, Dmitry Medvedev (54). The dismissed prime minister has been working with Putin since the early 1990s, in the St. Petersburg city administration. And he served as quasi-figurehead president of Russia from 2008 to 2012 to allow Putin to bypass the constitutional rule forbidding more than two consecutive presidential terms by temporarily taking the position of head of government—though continuing to serve as the de facto ruler of Russia throughout this period. In 2011, at a congress of the ruling United Russia party, Medvedev announced he would not seek reelection and was duly replaced by Putin in 2012. Medvedev was rewarded for his presidential seat warming with the post of prime minister from 2012 to 2020; but now, he has been ousted and offered the post of deputy chair of the Security Council (SC)—a position that legally does not exist. In accordance with Article 83 of the Russian Constitution, the SC is a presidential consultative body and is chaired by the president; it has a secretary, permanent and appointed members, but no deputy. To create this position for Medvedev, legislation must be introduced and approved and signed by Putin (Interfax, January 15, 2020). According to the Russian president, in his new capacity Medvedev will be working on “defense and security issues.” But those are, in essence, Putin’s main field of personal responsibility. Medvedev could end up playing a grand title role with little substance. Apparently, Medvedev will continue as chair of the United Russia party—also a superficial title since all day-to-day party work is run by its general secretary, Andrei Turchak (Interfax, January 16, 2020).
Upon unceremoniously sidelining Medvedev, Putin announced a surprise replacement: the head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin (53), a faceless technocrat practically unknown to the general public. His candidacy has been rushed through the State Duma (lower chamber of parliament), where United Russia holds an overwhelming majority, without many questions or discussion, and was approved in less than 24 hours. The president can replace individual cabinet ministers at will; but to change the prime minister, the entire cabinet must resign. During his approval process in the Duma, Mishustin told deputies there will be other alterations in the cabinet but offered no particulars. The State Duma essentially acts as a rubberstamp parliament that follows Kremlin orders without questions or hesitation (Interfax, January 16, 2020).
In his address on January 15, Putin also expounded on social, political and economic issues, including stimulating economic growth, fighting poverty and preparing for a looming demographic crisis. According to Russia’s official statistical department, Rosstat, by 2036, the population of the Russian Federation may shrink from the present 147 million to 134 million because of a low birth rate and high mortality (Newsru.com, December 27, 2019). Putin decreed this situation unacceptable and announced sweeping countermeasures. Low-income families with children under seven years of age will receive monthly cash handouts; free lunches will be introduced in all Russian schools for kids up to the fourth grade; payments and benefits will be offered to mothers after the birth of their first and second child; and so on. According to the finance ministry, this will cost the budget an additional 450 billion rubles ($7.5 billion) per year (Interfax, January 15, 2020). Increased handouts are intended to address poverty, decrease social tensions and reduce the income gap between households. At the same time, additional public spending may stimulate the economy and address the demographic crisis. Shrewdly, the Kremlin is hoping to kill several birds with one stone here. Putin also promised more spending on public healthcare, public infrastructural projects and stimulating investments to kick-start the stagnating economy (Kremlin.ru, January 15, 2020).
Finally, the Russian president announced constitutional amendments that will be approved by the parliament and signed into law in the coming several months, after a national nonbinding plebiscite. The Kremlin entirely controls the legislature as well as the rigged election process. Among the amendments, Putin proposed giving the Duma deputies power to approve not only the prime minister but also his deputies and cabinet ministers, though the president will retain the power to fire them. The State Council—a consultative assembly of regional governors that gathers irregularly at the president’s pleasure—will be granted a constitutional status, though it will most likely continue to be a consultative body with no real power. Putin insisted that despite the changes, Russia will remain a strictly centralized presidential republic, with all real power resting in the Kremlin (Kremlin.ru, January 15, 2020).
Some observers in Russia and abroad have decreed these changes as “revolutionary” and “the beginning of the transition,” believing Putin is delegating power out of the Kremlin in preparation for his looming resignation, as his fourth presidential term expires in 2024. According to certain assumptions, Putin may be creating a powerbase outside the Kremlin, perhaps within the State Council, or readying to take another key post—be it Duma speaker, a prime minister with enhanced powers, or something else (Meduza, January 15, 2020; Kommersant, January 16, 2020). But there is little solid evidence to support such theories. Granting a rubberstamp Duma more formal powers essentially changes nothing. Likewise, Mishustin does not look like a possible successor being groomed for the top job: He is an experienced financial expert-technocrat without political ambitions, tasked by Putin to manage an increase in spending to kick-start the economy without running into a deficit. Nothing currently suggests Putin is preoccupied with the succession problem or that he is, indeed, planning to relinquish power in 2024. In fact, one of the proposed amendments may introduce a strict general ban on more than two presidential terms in Russia. After its approval, the Kremlin-controlled Constitutional Court might even rule that, since the constitution has been altered, Putin’s previous terms do not count and, under the new rules, he is eligible for reelection in 2030. Or in 2036, etc.
Rather, Putin is concerned with outside threats coming from the West and sees his main task as uniting Russia politically and socially under his leadership to meet the grave challenges of the new decade. Any complicated transition that could provoke discord and weakness is unwelcome.