Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev unexpectedly submitted both his and his government’s resignation on Wednesday, with reports suggesting disagreements with President Vladimir Putin precipitated the move.
Mr Putin announced Mikhail Mishustin as his replacement a few hours later. An obscure technocrat, Mr Mishustin, 53, earned plaudits for his role revamping the country’s tax service, but is unlikely to be seen as a rival or potential successor. Approval of the appointment by the Duma, Russia’s lower parliament, on Thursday is virtually certain.
Mr Medvedev will now serve as deputy of the National Security Council, a newly created position.
The news came on the back of Mr Putin’s equally dramatic state-of-the-nation address. Over recent years, the showpiece event had become a predictable affair. But on Wednesday the president departed from the usual script of promises to the domestic audience and threats to the west by instead proposing a radical constitutional shakeup and referendum.
His proposals would see a redistribution of power away from the presidency and any potential successor towards parliament.
In Mr Putin’s new vision, the Duma would be granted powers to choose a prime minister and cabinet. The Federation Council, Russia’s upper chamber, would gain powers over the appointment of security officials. The constitutional position of the State Council, which Mr Putin currently heads, would also be strengthened.
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.
The move appeared to be designed to enable him to retain informal power by switching to one of the said institutions after leaving the presidential post.
Appearing glum-faced at a choreographed TV announcement, Mr Medvedev claimed he made the decision to resign in order to give Mr Putin the chance to implement his proposals.
“The changes will significantly alter not just the ... constitution, but also the balance of power,” he said. “In this context, it’s obvious [the government] should offer the president the opportunity to make the decisions he needs to make.”
Mr Putin responded by thanking his longtime associate for his work as head of the government. But then he also appeared to issue a sharp rebuke. “Not everything [Mr Medvedev’s government had done] worked out for the best,” he said. It was a surprisingly public admonishment for a man who had served as a loyal lieutenant for more than two decades.
Immediate reports suggested the resignation took members of the cabinet by surprise. “Nobody knew about it,” one minister is reported to have said. ”They brought us together and announced it just now.” Alexander Zhukov, a deputy speaker in the lower parliament claimed he had found out about the resignations only during the state-of-the-union address.
Some reports said Mr Putin had become “frustrated” by slow progress being made by the government on key strategic welfare projects. The Novaya Gazeta newspaper meanwhile suggested Mr Medvedev may have ”lashed out ... spontaneously” after hearing about the proposed changes.
The prime minister, who served as president over 2008-12, was considered favourite to succeed Russia’s longtime leader. In 2011, he stepped aside to allow Mr Putin to return for a third term, and many expected the president to repay the favour come 2024.
His demotion from frontline politics would appear to reduce that prospect considerably.
“After handing back the presidential chair, Medvedev likely believed he was owed one by Putin,” said Konstantin Gaaze, a political commentator and former government advisor.
“Instead, today, Putin told the whole country that he owed him nothing.”
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