The media has been replete with reports from Moscow about the Kremlin’s plans to reshape the political and institutional scenes in the world’s largest country. The reports, and accompanying analyses, focused on predictions as to the course President Vladimir Putin will adopt.
In a surprising step, the government of Dmitry Medvedev resigned “to make way for Vladimir Putin’s suggested changes,” according to a presidential statement.
The Tsar, as Putin is called in Western reports, had suggested in his annual address to the Russians embarking on constitutional amendments that transport authorities from the presidency to the Federal Assembly and that help him “remain in power”, in the words of many Western reports.
Putin’s fourth presidential term ends in 2024 and he is not constitutionally allowed to run for a fifth tenure.
Medvedev, Putin’s closest ally, wrote in the cabinet’s resignation letter that “when adopted, the amendments will introduce fundamental changes, not only to a wide range of articles of the constitution, but also to the balance of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers,” and that accordingly, “the government in its present form has resigned.”
Putin took the helm of Russia in 1999 as an interim president, succeeding Boris Yeltsin. The following year he was elected president and won two tenures, remaining at the top of Russia until 2008. Medvedev then took over the country till 2012, before Putin rose again to two six-year terms.
The constitutional amendments should be put to a referendum the date of which has been yet undecided.
Russia’s last public referendum was conducted by Yeltsin in 1993, two years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It resulted in the current constitution.
Upon Medvedev’s resignation, Putin thanked him and requested he remain at the head of the government until a new one was formed under Mikhail Mishustin, who put in place the new Russian taxation system.
Medvedev will be assigned the post of vice president of the National Security Council, led by Putin.
According to the Russian president’s letter to the Federal Assembly, the State Duma will select cabinet members and its head — currently an authority exercised by the president.
Putin also suggested increasing the authority of the lesser known State Council, which he earlier described as “proving greatly effective”. The council comprises the governors of 83 federal regions.
The suggestions include banning dual nationals and expats from running for the presidency, and continuing the limit of two presidential tenures.
The amendments also aim to encourage the Russians to bear children, to face the continuous decrease in population since the 1990s, through social services such as providing meals for students during the first years of the primary stage, and reducing taxes on large families.
Putin pledged to increase the fertility rate of Russian women from 1.5 children to 1.7 during the next four years, through financial allocations yet undetermined.
“Putin will not relinquish power. The question is, how can he stay at the helm post-2024,” asked Ahmed Al-Khamisi, an Egyptian expert on Russian affairs.
Al-Khamisi believes the constitutional amendments will avoid changing the duration of presidential terms since it may cause wide social shock.
Putin will “likely seek to form a council in which the powers are concentrated constitutionally, to be chaired by him to oversee development plans and manage the military and security establishment and their large industries, as well as the state budget and federal rule”, said Al-Khamisi.
Passing these amendments hinges on Putin’s popularity. “He enjoys nationwide popularity because he restored Russia’s status. It is starting to erode, though, because of the exorbitant expenses of daily life in Russia,” Al-Khamisi added.
“The Russians are not familiar with expensiveness. For seven decades they lived under the comprehensive umbrella of the Soviet Union. Housing was free, literally. Nowadays, a small apartment could cost a Russian $250,000,” Al-Khamisi stated.
“Moscow is now one of the world’s most expensive capitals. Russian education, known for its high standards, and a free service presented by the country, has become a harsh obstacle in the way of Russian families,” he said.
Rising living expenses will not help Putin in his plan to increase the population, much like in China. At the same time, Putin’s opponents are extremely divided and not strong enough to prevent him from effecting the amendments.
An opposition leader called for a sit-in at the Kremlin on Saturday, another addressed the public to gather on Sunday. None of the calls materialised.
This is in contrast to when large protests erupted against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.
A nationalist sentiment rose in Russia when it restored Crimea, after it had been annexed to Ukraine for decades. The same sentiments were vibrant when Putin confronted US and Western powers on several issues, such as Syria and, to an extent, Iran.
“Putin will use these developments to pass the new constitutional amendments,” said Al-Khamisi.
Opinion polls, conducted by government-funded institutions, revealed that 45 per cent of Russians believe the amendments are a step forward and not a “constitutional coup”, as described by the opposition.
According to several comments by supporters of the amendments in English-language Russian newspapers, the amendments will maintain the presidential tenure and give the Federal Assembly the right to appoint the government.
They will also grant the government and Federal Assembly the freedom to run the day-to-day affairs of the country, although Putin will still hold the strategic files.
“The Russian opposition has not much to do. It doesn’t have dedicated followers despite Putin’s eroding popularity due to the economic conditions,” said Al-Khamisi.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.