Alpha and Beta: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) and President Vladimir Putin have long been political cronies – but there has never been a question over who is top dog. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-term succession plan appears to have kicked off in Moscow on Wednesday – with the resignation of his government.

Putin’s announcement of sweeping constitutional reforms, and the subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the cabinet, are being widely interpreted in Moscow as the placement of the first pieces of a long-term political jigsaw puzzle that will allow Putin to preserve power after his constitutional mandate ends in 2024.

During a speech in front of both chambers of parliament, Putin on Wednesday announced solutions for the country’s political, economic and social problems. These included sweeping constitutional reforms, the most significant of which will result in an enhanced role for parliament, the supremacy of Russian law over international law and the amendment of a clause limiting presidents to two consecutive terms.

Right after these announcements, Medvedev resigned, together with the cabinet.

Medvedev is not exactly disappearing. Putin made clear that Medvedev will remain as acting prime minister during the transition, and also offered his long-term sidekick a brand-new position: deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, a body advising the president in matters of national security and military policies.

Since the president is the head of the Security Council, that makes Medvedev Putin’s direct deputy.

A barely known figure – Mikhail Mishustin, who heads the Federal Tax Service – will take Medvedev’s place as prime minister.

As for the cabinet, it will remain in place during the transition to Mishustin, Putin said. Mishustin will in due course propose the new cabinet – which will then receive presidential approval.

Precedents for succession

Though Wednesday’s news came as a shock in Moscow, pundits see it as the first step of Putin’s transition strategy for 2024, the year when his last mandate expires and he will need to step down according to the constitution – as it stands.

The game of political musical chairs has two precedents.

First, Medvedev and Putin have swapped places before. After Putin has served his first two consecutive terms as president – after which the constitution mandates a step down – Medvedev took the job in 2008, while Putin took over the prime-ministerial position.

After a single term, Medvedev obediently relinquished the presidential role in 2012, enabling Putin once again to take over.

Second, Kazakhstan’s long-term strongman, Nursultan Nazerbayev, unexpectedly stepped down from the presidency last year. But he did so after placing a long-term loyalist in his place, while he himself took the job of head of the National Security Council – a position that offers him considerable behind-the-scenes power.

Pundits at the time speculated as to whether the Kazakh model would be one Putin might follow.

Right after resigning, Medvedev stated that “the balance of power” will change after the constitution is amended and that his resignation provides the president “… with the ability to make all necessary decisions for this.”

Yet few analysts see a clear connection linking Putin’s announcement with Medvedev’s resignation. As constitutional law expert Ilya Shablinksy told liberal media outlet Meduzanothing in the constitutional changes announced by Putin would require Medvedev to resign.

Why Medvedev had to go

Most analysts see Medvedev’s resignation as a key part of Putin’s machination to guarantee a smooth power transition in 2024.

“The only goal of Putin and his regime is to stay in charge for life, having the entire country as his personal asset and seizing its riches for himself and his friends,” alleged opposition leader Aleksey Navalny on Twitter.

According to Grigory Golosov, the head of political science at the European University in St Petersburg, Medvedev’s resignation was a necessary move that will allow him to replace Putin as president in 2024.

Medvedev – like Putin, a native of St Petersburg – has long existed in the shadow of Putin, for whom he once served as lawyer. More recently, Medvedev has deflected heavy flak away from Putin for the many problems affecting Russia’s economy as it is impacted by Western sanctions.

There have also been high-profile and highly embarrassing rumors of personal corruption, with allegations that Medvedev secretly owns a vineyard, a yacht and palaces.

Seen in this light, removing him from his current role is a necessary step to rehabilitate him as a political figure ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

“In order to improve Medvedev’s very low approval rating, it was necessary to move him to a post that won’t entail any responsibility for Russia’s economic problems – a risk-free position,” Golosov told Asia Times.

According to the expert, as deputy chairman of the Security Council, Medvedev will be well positioned to capitalize on Russia’s foreign policy – wildly popular among the Russian public, who laud Putin for resurrecting post-Yeltsin Russia a global power player – while avoiding domestic political perils.

Putin’s proposal of appointing Mishustin as Medvedev’s replacement fits this strategy.

“Mishustin is a little-known figure who won’t be able to grow enough political influence in the time left before the next presidential election,” Golosov said. “There are zero chances for him to become a competitor for Medvedev or Putin.”

Most analysts agree that Putin is highly likely to step back from the presidency in 2024, then carve out a brand-new governing position for himself.

According to Golosov, one option could be maintaining behind-the-scenes power as head of the Security Council.

“Appointing Medvedev as deputy chairman of the Security Council is already a symbolic move, enhancing the status of this political body,” he said.

Another option may be the State Council, currently an advisory body, which will be soon enshrined in the constitution as an official state agency, according to the just-announced constitutional reforms.

“The power of a political body enshrined in the constitution can be increased merely by parliament’s approval,” explained Golosov.

That would not appear to be a difficult task for Putin. Parliament, under his rule, has largely become a rubber stamp subservient to the Kremlin.

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