16 January 2020
Full Special Report
- Government resignation and proposed referendum indicate President will step up plans for transition of power while ensuring continued political stability
- Referendum on constitutional amendments likely as Putin prepares transition of power, but he will avoid nominating successor early on to protect own influence
- Financial pressures will leave Government little room to enact major economic reforms, and foreign policy will remain focus for remainder of Putin’s term
Prime Minister Medvedev announced his resignation on 15 January and said President Putin would appoint a new government. Medvedev will take up a new post as deputy chairman of the Security Council, while Putin has nominated Federal Tax Service Chief Mikhail Mishustin to replace Medvedev as Prime Minister. The resignation came hours after Putin delivered his annual address, during which he proposed a national referendum on constitutional amendments that would shape the Government in the years after his term ends in 2024. The suggested amendments would limit future presidents to two terms in office, a change from the current restriction on serving more than two terms consecutively. They would also give the Duma (Parliament’s lower house) the right to confirm cabinet ministers and nominate prime ministers, a move Putin said would increase the role and significance of Parliament and political parties. However, he also stated that Russia must remain a “strong presidential republic” and that the President must retain control over the military and security forces, as well as the right to dismiss governors and ministers.
Putin began a new six-year term in March 2018 and is prevented by the constitution from seeking re-election in 2024. This has given rise to speculation over whether he will look to amend the constitution to remove the two-term limit, or create an entirely new position that would enable him to retain power in a non-presidential capacity. Comments by the President and other figures have fuelled such speculation. For instance, in December 2018, the Duma Speaker proposed a review of the constitution to assess its relevance, days after Putin said in a televised press conference that any changes to the constitution would be “a matter for broad civic discussion” (see our 11 January 2019 Report). Putin’s desire to put any constitutional changes to a referendum suggests he is hoping to secure public backing, and thus legitimacy, for whichever succession plan he ultimately chooses.
The proposals outlined in Putin’s annual address signal that he will now begin to step up plans to secure his political position beyond 2024. His recommendation that the Duma be given increased powers and future presidents be limited to serving two terms suggests Putin is attempting to weaken the power of any potential successor, rather than seeking another term for himself. He also called in his address for the status and role of the State Council, an advisory body, to be “enshrined in the constitution”. It is plausible therefore that Putin could look to create an entirely new role for himself within the State Council, as this would allow him to retain a level of power, while limiting his involvement in day-to-day governance. Putin also said the role of regional governors should be strengthened, suggesting he may consider sourcing a successor from their rank. Regardless of the precise role Putin assumes after 2024, he will prioritise protecting both his legacy and assets, and avoiding a mismanaged transfer of power that could threaten political stability.
Russia, Moscow: Russian President, Vladimir Putin
Putin’s call for constitutional amendments and the government reshuffle will likely also have been intended to provide a level of clarity to reduce infighting between factions in the Kremlin, as uncertainty over how he will handle his departure has exacerbated rivalry within the ruling elite. Indeed, a series of arrests of Medvedev-linked former ministers last year was most likely orchestrated by influential oligarch and Putin ally Igor Sechin; fearing that Medvedev or another player from the liberal camp could emerge as a potential presidential successor, Sechin likely leveraged his influence within the security services to intimidate the Prime Minister in the hope of persuading him not to vie for the position (see our 5 April 2019 Report). Putin may therefore have acted to prevent prolonged uncertainty deepening these divisions.
Meanwhile, Putin will hope to use the resignation of Medvedev and the Government, which he likely orchestrated, as an opportunity to reapportion blame for falling living standards and austerity measures that have contributed to unrest over the past year. Indeed, despite publicly thanking the outgoing politicians for their service, Putin stated they had not been successful in achieving all of their aims. The President has also previously sought to cast Medvedev – who personally announced highly unpopular pension reforms in 2018 – as the architect of austerity measures. Meanwhile, Putin set out a number of social spending measures in his address, and acknowledged the issue of low incomes. He will therefore intend his selection of a new government to give the perception of a renewed commitment to economic reform.
Putin will continue to manage any succession plans carefully as he seeks to limit infighting among the Kremlin elite, and remains unlikely to nominate any successor until close to 2024, as the rise of such a figure would risk diminishing his own influence and power. A public referendum on his proposed changes is likely in the coming year, and the suggested constitutional amendments are almost certain to be approved. Opposition figures such as Aleksey Navalny will look to organise protests around any referendum, but will likely struggle to mobilise widespread support, particularly as Putin’s shaping of his political future as a constitutional question will limit the validity of any claims that he is attempting to cling on to power illegitimately, which could otherwise trigger a backlash. Meanwhile, ongoing pressure on the economy means the Government will have little ability to offer financial concessions or to increase social spending, ensuring that low-level protests will continue over the coming year. Given that Putin will struggle to meaningfully address domestic economic problems, foreign policy pursuits – which he will be better able to control and will see as key to securing his legacy – will remain the key focus for the remainder of his term.