President Vladimir Putin engineered a surprise shake-up of Russia’s leadership Wednesday, proposing changes to the constitution that could keep him in power well past the end of his term in 2024.
Hours after he made the proposals, prime minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned and Mr Putin named the little-known head of Russia’s tax service to replace him.
Mr Putin kept his longtime ally Mr Medvedev in the Kremlin’s leadership structure by appointing him to the newly created post of deputy head of the presidential Security Council. But the duties and influence of that position are unclear.
The shake-up sent shockwaves through Russia’s political elites, who were left pondering what Mr Putin’s intentions were and speculating about future cabinet appointments.
Mr Putin’s proposed constitutional reforms, announced in a state of the nation address, indicated he was working to carve out a new governing position for himself after his term ends, although the suggested changes do not specify what path he will take to stay in charge.
The 67-year-old former KGB operative, who has led Russia for more than 20 years, often keeps his intentions secret until the very last moment.
Alexei Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition leader, tweeted that Mr Putin’s speech clearly signalled his desire to continue calling the shots even after his presidential term ends.
“The only goal of Putin and his regime is to stay in charge for life, having the entire country as his personal asset and seizing its riches for himself and his friends,” Mr Navalny said.
Independent analyst Masha Lipman told The Associated Press: “The goal is for the system to remain stable and for Putin to retain his grip on power and to remain what he has been throughout these 20 years – the most important politician in the country, the ultimate decision-maker, the uncontested unchallenged leader of no alternative.”
The Kremlin said tax service chief Mikhail Mishustin was nominated to replace Mr Medvedev, who has been prime minister for nearly eight years. Approval by the Duma on Thursday is virtually certain.
Mr Mishustin has no political experience, indicating he will dutifully carry out the Kremlin’s wishes as head of the cabinet.
He is credited with modernising Russia’s tax system. Analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser, told the Interfax news agency that Mr Mishustin is “a splendid bureaucrat, in the best sense of the word”.
The move is the third time in the Putin era that major leadership changes have come suddenly from the top.
Mr Putin came to power in the first one, when he became acting president after Boris Yeltsin’s surprise resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999.
In 2007, as his second term neared its end, he anointed Mr Medvedev to succeed him.
Mr Medvedev then said Mr Putin should be prime minister – moves that critics decried as an imposed job-swap without input from the electorate.
Mr Medvedev was president in 2008-12, but Mr Putin appeared to be effectively in charge.
Under Mr Medvedev, the constitution was amended to lengthen the president’s term from four years to six, although it limits the leader to two consecutive terms.
In televised comments Wednesday, Mr Medvedev said he needed to resign in light of Mr Putin’s proposed changes in government.
Mr Putin suggested amending the constitution again to allow MPs to name prime ministers and cabinet members. The president currently holds the authority to make those appointments.
“It will increase the role of parliament and parliamentary parties, powers and independence of the prime minister and all cabinet members,” Mr Putin said.
At the same time, Mr Putin argued that Russia would not remain stable if it were governed under a parliamentary system.
The president should retain the right to dismiss the prime minister and cabinet ministers, to name top defence and security officials, and to be in charge of the Russian military and law enforcement agencies, he said.
Mr Putin emphasised that the constitutional changes must be put to a nationwide vote.
Mr Putin has been in power longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader since Josef Stalin, who led from 1924 until his death in 1953.
Under the current law, Mr Putin must step down in 2024 after his term ends.