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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 10 New Delhi, February 22, 2020

Putin’s Bombshell: “Real Change for Russia”?

Friday 28 February 2020

by R.G. GidadhublI

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Duma and decisions taken in the third week of January 2020 announcing the need for the constitutional reforms and the resignations of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the Russian Government were a thunderbolt in the clear sky for Russia. It could be argued that while there is relative political stability in Russia under the partnership of Putin and Medvedev during the last nearly two decades and hence this is a bombshell. Moreover, Putin proposed less known 53-year old career bureaucrat, tax chief Mikhail Mishustin as the new Prime Minister which was approved by the Lower House of State Duma and the new government was formed.

Several questions arise as to what are the reasons for these decisions, what are Putin’s objectives and personal interests since he has total control of power over Russia for over 20 years? An effort has been made to examine some of these issues.

Firstly, in the opinion of many Russian analysts, reorganisation of the Russian Government and bringing in new experts and leaders could be in the mind of Putin to solve many socio-economic problems persisting in the country. Mention may be made of the declining trend in economic growth, rising inflation, growing unemployment, decline in per capita income, decline in population, worsening conditions affecting older generation—all leading to increase in social unrest. There were protests going on in the country during the last couple of years against the worsening situation in Russia.

Secondly, Putin is aware of the fact that particularly younger generation want more freedom apart from better economic conditions in the country and are demanding ‘Change’ leading to violent protests during the last few years. In fact some of the protests were against the leadership of Putin himself, which he is certainly aware of. Hence sensing the mood of the people Putin seems to have taken this decision to bring about ‘Changes’. In fact the new Prime Minister Mishustin has promised ‘Real Changes’. Mishustin has long experience in handling financial matters being at the helm of Russia’s tax service which may help in solving many economic problems facing the country. For instance, Mishustin said his priority would be to increase citizens’ real income, restoring trust with the business community and drive innovation.

Thirdly, Putin has stated that as a part of the ‘Change’, the Russian Constitution will be amended giving more authority to Parliament transferring from the President. The State Duma, the Lower House of Parliament, will have the right to name Cabinet Ministers and the Prime Minister, a power that currently belongs to the President. This implies Putin’s constitutional reform would ‘Change’ the balance of power. In other words once the reform process is implemented, the future President will be less powerful than what Putin had enjoyed.

In fact several top Russian officials who are proxies for Kremlin thinking have been discussing possible changes to the Constitution in the last couple of years. Putin has decided to make ‘Changes’ in the Constitution since it will be difficult if United Russia party, which is not retaining its popularity, will not be able to regain majority in the State Duma in 2021.

Fourthly, Putin has taken this decision for major ‘Changes’ in the government and Constitution not without consulting Medvedev. This is evident from the fact that Medvedev stated: “After the [constitutional] changes are adopted, and most likely this will be done after discussions, there will be significant the balance of power,” In announcing the government resignation, Putin said that Medvedev would move over to the National Security Council, to become the Deputy Chairman.

The Security Council itself is a powerful consultative body, whose membership includes the chief of the country’s most powerful security agencies: the Federal Security Service, the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Foreign, Defense, and Internal Affairs Ministries; and the head of the National Guard.

It is opined by Aleksei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio and a veteran watcher of Kremlin politics, that for Medvedev who has not earned great popularity during the last over a decade, shifting from the prime ministerial position to Deputy Chiarman, would be a promotion. Moreover, he will continue to be close to Putin in a wide spectrum of political, economic and security-related policy-making decisions.

Fifthly, Putin has realised that due to policies pursued by him during the last over a decade, Russia has shifted toward the autarky system, virtual isolation resulting in necessity not to depend much on external trade or assistance as opined by Russia’s political analyst, Dmitry Oreshkin. This has adversely impacted on the Russian economy which is already facing a declining trend, necessitating focus on internal capabilities.

Sixthly, Putin’s decision of annexation of Crimea in 2014, even though supported by Russians and giving him high popularity rating, resulted in condemnation and economic sanctions and isolation of Russia by Western countries and geopolitical solitude. Economic sanctions have resulted in major Russian banks being blocked from accessing foreign credit markets hurting external trade. It is a matter of great significance that Russia has been facing adverse criticism and losing cases in the International Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights.

Lastly, there is a strong possibility that Putin, by giving up his position as President, could take up the position as Chief of State Council, where his long-time partner Medvedev will be the Deputy Chief, and wield authority and decision-making powers in Russia’s domestic and foreign policy affairs, giving up day-to-day handling of issues. According to Tatyana Stanovaya, a longtime analyst of Kremlin politics, Putin might be angling to move into the position of head of the State Council after he leaves the presidency. Yevgeny Roizman, former Yekaterinburg mayor and Opposition politician, has commented: “It seems that some configuration [of government] will probably change. All the actions that are taking place now are actions aimed at keeping Putin in power indefinitely.” In support of this contention Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent Opposition leader and Kremlin critic, has made a candid remark that Putin wants himself and his regime to retain power after his term ends in 2024.

Thus by declaring most unexpected decisions for ‘Change’, Vladimir Putin being a powerful and shrewd political leader, has shaken social, political and economic institutions in the country for promoting national interest. At the same time he has created opportunities for himself to retain his authority and leadership of Russia in the ‘Changing Scenario’.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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