MOSCOW -- Last week, President Vladimir Putin sent Russia’s political elite reeling when he abruptly called for a raft of constitutional changes.
Hours later, he oversaw the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his government -- and tapped an obscure tax official to take Medvedev’s place.
On January 20, as Russians and outside observers were trying to make sense of it all, Putin threw another curve ball: He submitted the proposed constitutional amendments to parliament, revealing details that few had expected to be released so quickly.
“Any initiatives put forth by the head of state, of course, are received with great attention,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters a day later.
“The discussion and implementation of these initiatives is always carried out in priority order,” he said. “This is the reality in which we exist, and this is an absolutely understandable and clear reality.”
Peskov’s comments and the lengthy list of proposed amendments notwithstanding, at this point there’s little that is absolutely clear about what exactly the Kremlin is up to as it undertakes the most sweeping rewrite of Russia’s system of governance since 1993, when the constitution was ratified.
So what does it all mean? What’s in the 29-page document that the Kremlin released on January 20? And what does it portend for Putin’s future -- and Russia’s?
Is This Really A Shift To More Of A Parliamentary System?
In the proposed constitutional changes he outlined in his state-of-the-nation address on January 15, Putin appeared to call for shifting some of the presidential powers to parliament. That included giving the State Duma -- the lower chamber -- the right to name cabinet ministers and the prime minister, a power that currently belongs to the president.
The presidency, he said, would retain powers including the right to dismiss the prime minister and cabinet ministers, as well as naming top defense and security officials.
The Federation Council -- the upper chamber -- will be consulted for the president’s nominations for defense minister and other security posts.
"This will increase the role and significance of the country's parliament," Putin said.
The amendments released by the Kremlin on January 20 match many of Putin’s details: The president’s candidate for prime minister will need to get formal confirmation by the Duma. (Currently, the Duma can only give its consent.) And the nominations for cabinet will also be subject to Duma confirmation.
But several experts including political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of the consulting firm R. Politik, said that the real power could potentially shift to the State Council, which will have heightened legal authority.
The council could also serve as a convenient landing spot for Putin, to allow him to retain ultimate authority in the country after leaving the presidency.
More on that below.
So What’s The State Council Anyway?
The constitutional changes Putin proposed included mention of a government institution that many Russians had never even heard of: the State Council.
Currently, it is an advisory body that he created shortly after he first became president in 2000, vaguely charged with “safeguarding coordinated functioning and cooperation of state organs.”
It is distinct from the Security Council, which is a powerful consultative agency set up by the constitution that oversees Russian national security policies, and whose chairman is the president.
Putin now wants to equip the State Council with greater power -- but just how much is yet to be determined.
Alongside Putin, who heads the council, its board includes the heads of the lower and upper houses of parliament, Putin’s envoys in federal districts, and regional governors. Its members meet once or twice a year for discussions of a specific issue like infrastructure or the volunteer movement.
Meetings are held in ornate halls and have an air of high authority, but for now that’s just symbolic -- the council is not even mentioned in Russia’s constitution.
The proposed amendments would make the council an official state organ, with tasks including setting out the main priorities of domestic and foreign policy. A separate law will detail the role and prerogatives of the State Council -- so what the change will mean in reality is to be spelled out at a later date.
Speculation has focused on the council’s potential as a forum for Putin to continue presiding over key questions even after he vacates the presidency.
Judging by the proposed changes in its official role, it may be bestowed with executive authority it did not previously have.
More on that below.
So How Many Consecutive Terms Has Putin In Fact Served?
Putin rose to the presidency on New Year’s Eve 1999, when Boris Yeltsin stepped down and installed him as successor, and he served for two four-year terms after his initial election in March 2000.
In 2008, as required by the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms, Putin left office.
But before he did, he endorsed his St. Petersburg protégé Medvedev as his successor, and Medvedev won soundly. Putin became Medvedev’s prime minister.
One of Medvedev’s first moves when he became president was to call for tweaking the constitution, to extend future presidential terms to six years instead of four. Putin turned out to be the beneficiary of that change, as he returned to the Kremlin for a six-year term in 2012 without violating the letter of the law.
In 2018, he was re-elected for a fourth term that is due to end in 2024, making him Russia's longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin.
At his annual news conference in December, Putin hinted that he wanted to remove the word “consecutive” from the constitution. That was widely seen as a way to prevent any successor from doing what Putin did -- and if the successor happens to be Medvedev again, he would be limited to a single six-year term.
In the proposed amendments released January 20, the word “consecutive” is removed completely, and an outright prohibition on serving more than two terms is included.
But it left open the question of what comes next for Putin.
Does This Mean Putin Will Maintain Power Beyond 2024?
This is the 64,000-ruble question.
That question -- and the question of Putin's future more generally -- has been building since the start of his final presidential term.
Analysts say Putin’s longtime dominance has made it increasingly hard for many Russians to imagine having another leader, whether they like him or not. Arguably, this makes Russia’s political system dangerously dependent on a single personality and the power centers that provide his support, rather than the political system as a whole: Neither the Duma, nor the Federation Council, nor the so-called siloviki factions or security agencies currently seem capable of being a real counterweight to Putin’s presidency in a proper system of checks and balances.
There is little doubt that the State Council amendment will be approved by parliament and whatever public vote the Kremlin decides to use -- which could come as early as April -- will provide a veneer of electoral approval to updating the constitution.
So ultimately Putin may end up as the authority figure who effectively sits over both president and prime minister in the hierarchy of decision-making power.
That’s not unlike what happened in Kazakhstan, when longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev stepped down last March but retained power by holding influential positions including head of a Security Council whose authority had conveniently been beefed up before the shift.
And for the moment, there’s no restriction in either the existing constitution or the proposed amendments on how long Putin could stay in that role.
Matthew Luxmoore reported from Moscow; Mike Eckel reported from Prague