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Analysis

Russian Shakeup: What Does Putin Have in Mind?

Sunday 19 January 2020
Russian Shakeup: What Does Putin Have in Mind?

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Russia’s Ruling Party Approves Putin’s Candidate for PM

Alwaght- On Wednesday and hours after Russian President Putin’s announcement about a government shakeup in an annual speech, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced his resignation. Many observers explain this political shakeup as a new plan designed by Putin to hand over the power to a new institution that will guarantee his and a couple of friends’ stay in the power in the next decade. 

Medvedev stepping down: Difference or agreement? 

The government of Dmitry Medvedev was formed on May 18, 2018, containing 10 deputy prime ministers and 22 ministers, Medvedev, a lawyer, has been a Putin confidante since 1990s. Putin, who came to power in the post-Soviet Russia in 1991, could not become a president after two back-to-back presidential terms. In 2007, in a coordinated move, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov stepped down along with his cabinet. The main aim, he said, was to give President Putin the freedom to choose the next favorable PM. In a tactical move at the time, Medvedev became president and Putin, remaining the strongman but under new cover, became the PM. The Wednesday resignation of the cabinet allows him to continue the grip on power at a higher level. 

Putin has been holding the president and PM posts respectively for over 20 years. Of course, he is zealous to continue his grip on power. However, this time he is aspiring to hold a post even higher than the president in the political structure. Putin cannot run for president after his current term ends in 2024 so he attempts to give the parliament new powers in a bid to solidify his power under a new constitution ostensibly created by the parliament. 

What is behind forming State Council? 

With the newly-formed institution Putin is eyeing for the next stage of power and possibly his retirement time is the State Council. The body now has an advisory role made up of 85 local governors and other officials including political party leaders. Still, it is a great institution that can tip the scales of power at home. The recognition of this body requires changes in the national constitution. In his speech last week, Putin said he intended to introduce changes to the constitution to give the parliament bigger powers in appointing the PM and his cabinet and free the parliament from powerlessly confirming the president’s candidates for the PM post. He continued this did not mean scrapping the presidential system and shifting to a parliamentary one. “I do not intend to scrap the president’s power to dismiss the PM under the new constitutional changes,” he was quoted as saying. 

Medvedev, noting that he resigned from the post according to the article 117 of the constitution, said: “After those amendments are adopted — and it was said that this is likely to be done following discussion — there will be significant changes not only to a variety of constitution articles, but to the balance of power, namely to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power.” 

Like the game of 2007 that led some media and observers to think that a gap is appearing between Putin and Medvedev, this time too Putin beside thanking the resigned PM in a sham criticism blamed the economic problems partially on Medvedev.

The Russian economic problems are similar to those the advanced Western countries are grappling with, including an aging population and declining investment and efficiency. The low oil prices and the Western sanctions imposed following Russia's annexation of the Crimea Peninsula should not be ignored in Moscow's economic troubles. However, since the beginning, Putin lonely managed to save the national economy while it was teetering on the brink of collapse, scoring nationwide popularity. Some of the problems remain in place. Over the past few years, Russian economic growth rate has been relatively slow, not going past 1 and 2 percent. Alexi Kurdin, the head of the audit chamber, at an international conference hosted by Moscow School of Economics, said that Russia has never seen such a long recession since the Second World War that kept the economic growth to only 1 percent. 

To walk out of this situation, Putin named Mikhail Mishustin, the head of Federal Tax Service, this week as the replacement to Medvedev. The new PM is a technocrat who reorganized the country’s tax system. In a speech, he said that one of his priorities is the real increase in the monthly wages of the people.

Although Russia is moving to economic reform and a man as unpopular as Medvedev has resigned, these Putin’s tactics are aimed at restoring hope and contentment to the Russians. After all, a referendum is needed for his constitutional amendments. Putin has called for such a referendum. The last one was held in 1993 under President Boris N, Yeltsin, who resigned in 2000 and named Putin as acting successor until elections were held. 

In his speech on the need for some parts of the constitution to change, Putin said: “at the moment, in accordance with Article 111 and Article 112 of Russia’s Constitution, the president just secures the State Duma's consent to appoint the chairman of the government, and after that he appoints the head of government, his deputies and all ministers. The president also suggested appointing heads of security agencies after consultations with the Federation Council.” 

Putin eyes concentration of the military power in the hands of the president and also making it dependent on the State Council he aspires to head prospectively. He named Medvedev immediately after the resignation of the deputy head of the Security Council. He is yet to reveal the Medvedev role in the movement to the State Council. What is clear is that Putin seeks to define a security position for his future that many translate as an attempt to revive the grandeur of the Soviet Union. 

Alexei Navalny, one of the most prominent figures of the Russian opposition, said that Putin’s recent moves are a return to the Soviet policies and any referendum for constitutional changes is simply “fraudulent crap” and that Putin aims to be “sole leader for life.” 

Despite the opposition criticism and the fact that Putin seeks to strengthen Russia in terms of security and defense, his main aim, as his Duma address in February 2019 showed, is to shore up the Russian economic growth and the new changes can be tracked to a new economic strategy.

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