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Key to Russia’s Political Shakeup? Putin is Here to Stay

Russian President Vladimir Putin and officials listen to the national anthem after President's address to the Federal Assembly at the Manezh exhibition hall in downtown Moscow on January 15, 2020.

President Vladimir Putin moved to consolidate plans for constitutional reform and name a new government Thursday — one day after the 20-year Russian leader altered the political landscape by hinting at plans to retain influence when his current and final presidential term ends in 2024.

Yet, for Russians, the most immediate shift involved an unexpected new prime minister.

Mikhail Mishustin, the little known chief of Russia’s Tax Service until being promoted by Putin late Wednesday, was approved by the Duma to head the government in a unanimous vote.

He replaces longtime Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev, who submitted his entire Cabinet’s resignation in a surprise move Wednesday.

Speaking before the lawmakers, Mishustin insisted his mission was to enact economic reforms laid out by Putin in an address to Russia’s Federal Assembly that largely highlighted Russians’ growing dissatisfaction — over low wages, poor health care services, and lack of opportunity among other issues.

“I want to … maintain dialogue with the people,” Mishustin said in a speech to lawmakers outlining the need to better enact Putin’s reforms. “It’s important that we hear what happened, and what didn’t.”

It was the first time most Russians had ever heard his voice.

Constitutional changes

There was little question of who — and what — was driving the political shakeup in Moscow.

In concluding his speech Wednesday, Putin proposed a series of major constitutional amendments that would move power away from the presidency to the parliament.

Among the most consequential: Russia’s Duma would have a say over the Cabinet appointments, including prime minister and other key posts.

Another would give the country’s Security Council — currently an advisory body to Putin — new constitutional powers.

The amendments were widely seen as Putin creating options for a new role to exert power after his current term ends in 2024.

“It’s a constitutional coup,” said analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov, in an interview with VOA. “The constitution will now be sewn to fit Putin individually and with one purpose: so that Putin can further rule Russia,” he added.

True or not, the Russian leader immediately appointed a 75-member delegation of Kremlin-loyal writers, actors, religious leaders and sports stars to oversee the proposed constitutional changes, painting the move as part of efforts to move government "closer to the people."

Meanwhile, the head of the Russian Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, said her commission was ready to carry out a vote on the constitutional reforms.

In a separate move that raised eyebrows given the uncertainty in Moscow, Ramzan Kadyrov, the strong-arm leader of Russia’s southern Chechen Republic and Putin ally, announced he would be handing over power to a deputy for a few days because he would be undergoing a procedure that would leave him “temporarily incapacitated.”

A placeholder or future Kremlin leader?

Kremlin watchers also debated Putin’s choice for new prime minister. Was Mikhail Mishustin an improvised choice or part of some larger Kremlin plan?

“It seems highly likely that Mishustin is just a technocratic placeholder,” wrote Tatiana Stanovoya, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, in a post on Facebook.

“Mishustin's relative obscurity shouldn’t fool anyone,” wrote her colleague Alexander Baunov in a thread on Twitter that pointed to Putin’s own unexpected rise in government under then-President Boris Yeltsin in 1999.

“Putin was also a little-known official until Yeltsin promoted him to three senior posts, one after the other, to everyone’s great surprise,” he wrote.

The rift reflected a central point of discussion: When it came to the prime minister — and Putin’s latest moves — everyone had an opinion.

Indeed, the past 24 hours have sent Kremlinology — the Soviet-era science of reading Russia’s political tea leaves — into overdrive, with publications and blogs offering up theories over what would come next.

“Putin will take over as head of the United Russia fraction in the parliament,” assured the daily Kommersant, a newspaper known for insight into Kremlin machinations.

“Medvedev fired himself. It wasn’t planned,” claimed Biznes Online, while interviewing a political spin doctor.

The daily Vedemosti offered a different scoop: Prime Minister Mishustin had penned several pop songs, including a hit called “A Real Woman.”

More importantly, would Putin become a newly empowered prime minister? Head of the new Security Council? Perhaps something else?

There was only one point of consensus. Vladimir Putin — in one form or another — was here to stay.