It is hard to imagine what more Russia’s president could have done to confirm that he was leaving office – yes, really leaving office – when his current term expires in 2024 than what he said in his state-of-the-nation address this week. Yet the instant consensus of western Kremlin-watchers, Russian opposition figures and jaded members of Russia’s chattering classes was that what he had actually meant was that he intended to go on and on.
“We have a new Brezhnev,” was one comment – an allusion to the decrepit Soviet leader whose death in office in 1982 offered an early symbol of the doomed USSR. Russia’s “new system – and a new Putin”, said another, should be in place by 2021, while a BBC correspondent spoke of a “jigsaw” that, “when complete, will show Putin still in power”. Far from preparing for a transition, they agreed, Vladimir Putin was actually devising an elaborate scheme to stay on.
How the drama that then unfolded fits into this scenario – the resignation of the Russian government en masse, the sideways move of the long-serving prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to become deputy chairman of the Security Council (a body modelled on its US counterpart) – and the appointment of the head of the tax service, Mikhail Mishustin, as interim prime minister – was not at once obvious. But a favoured explanation was that Medvedev had been upset by the constitutional changes broached by Putin earlier in the day and tendered his and his government’s resignation in response.
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