Moscow (AFP) – Russia’s government resigned Wednesday after President Vladimir Putin proposed a change to the constitution in a shock announcement that sparked speculation about Putin’s future plans.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a long-time Putin ally, resigned after the President proposed in his annual State of the Union address a package of constitutional reforms designed to strengthen Parliament’s role.
Speculation about changes in Russia’s political system that would allow Putin to continue after 2024 if he is to step down after a fourth term in the Kremlin.
Some have suggested that he could take on a new post or remain in a powerful role behind the scenes.
Putin quickly appointed Mikhail Mishustin, the inconspicuous head of the country’s tax service, to succeed Medvedev.
Medvedev and Putin appeared side by side on national television a few hours after Putin’s speech to announce the government’s resignation.
Medvedev said that the constitutional proposals would change the balance of power in the country significantly, and “the government in its current form has resigned.”
“All further decisions are made by the president,” he added.
Putin thanked Medvedev, who also served as President of Russia for four years from 2008, and suggested that he take over the role of Vice-President of the Russian Security Council, headed by Putin.
– ‘demand for change’ –
The changes Putin proposed on Wednesday would give Parliament more powers, including the power to elect the prime minister and senior cabinet members instead of the president, as is the case with the current system.
Other changes would strengthen the role of regional governors and tighten residence requirements for presidential candidates and other senior officials.
“Today there is a clear need for change in our society,” said Putin in his speech. “People want to develop, they strive to advance in their careers, in their training and in their prosperity.”
The reform package would be subject to a national vote without specifying when.
“We will be able to build a strong, prosperous Russia only if public opinion is respected,” said the 67-year-old leader.
According to analysts, Putin has laid the foundation for possible changes to a system since the early 1990s.
“Russia entered the phase of change of power prematurely,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of analysis firm R.Politik.
She said Putin appeared to be preparing for a powerful role after the president as head of state council, an advisory body whose powers would be expanded as part of constitutional reforms.
Medvedev had become “toxic” and had to make way for a new prime minister.
– “Guide to Life” –
Leading Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said he expected any vote on constitutional changes to be “fraudulent crap” and Putin’s goal to remain “the sole leader in life”.
Russia last held a referendum in 1993 when it passed the constitution under Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
Putin has had a firm grip on the country since he came to power in 1999 with Yeltsin’s resignation. He remained prime minister when Medvedev took over the presidency.
Putin was re-elected for a six-year term in 2018 and has found that his approval ratings have dropped to some of their lowest levels, although they are still well above that of most Western leaders.
According to recent polls, Putin’s rating was 68-70 percent, a few points higher than a year ago, but lower than his last election at over 80 percent.
Russia’s economy stagnated after Western sanctions for annexing Crimea in 2014, and most Russians suffered a decline in their disposable income.
The disappointment boiled last summer when thousands took to the streets to protest the exclusion of opposition candidates from local elections. This resulted in extensive arrests and long prison terms for a number of demonstrators.
The national address, which is held in the Manezh exhibition hall next to the Kremlin, is one of three major annual Putin events alongside a marathon press conference and a live phone call to answer questions from the Russian public.