By Dismissing His Government, Vladimir Putin Hopes To Secure His Political System.
Today, Russian internal politics took its most significant political turn of events in nearly a decade. Addressing the nation in the Russian equivalent to the State of the Union address, President Vladimir Putin announced that he would accept the resignation of his entire government (i.e. Cabinet of ministers), foremost among them Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev. Although shocking to many observers, the move had in many ways been in the works for some time, and it provides a road map for how Putin will handle the upcoming end of his Presidency, as mandated by the Russian constitution.
Medvedev has been by Putin’s side for most of his time in power, first as his Chief of Staff, then holding the office of the Presidency for four years, as Putin was mandated to take a four year break between terms (he held the office of Prime Minister during Medvedev’s abscence). Despite his closeness to the famously illiberal Putin, Medvedev has always been considered a more open, pro-Western figure than his boss. It was under his Presidency that Barack Obama felt there was an opening for his “reset button” with Russia.
It was NATO’s ill-fated 2011 intervention in Libya that caused the first rift in Putin and Medvedev’s otherwise close relationship. Although foreign policy was in theory beyond Putin’s remit as Prime Minister, he reasserted his de facto control over the country by criticizing the West’s intervention publicly, while Medvedev seemed more inclined to allow the anti-Gaddafi operation to be carried out. The two had an exchange of hostile words, but further political conflict did not erupt; Medvedev had considered running for a second Presidential term in 2012, but ultimately stepped aside to allow Putin to return to the office. He was in turn rewarded for this loyalty by being appointed to the office of Prime Minister, which he held from 2012 up until today.
Over the last eight years, Medvedev has functioned as a kind of human shield, or lightning rod absorbing criticism within Russia that is not directed at Putin, often out of self-preservation for would-be critics. Prominent anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s most famous YouTube video took aim at Medvedev’s alleged houses and how they were bought, for example. Putin and Medvedev used this approach to sell an unpopular pension reform, with Medvedev’s government handling the rollout and defending it, while Putin himself announcing softening measures after the reform inspired backlash and street protests. Although Putin’s approval ratings did drop because of the reform, they stabilized in the mid 60s by 2019, while by January of that year a majority of Russians wanted Medvedev’s government to resign. Almost exactly one year later, Putin gave them their wish.
So what does this move for the future of Russian politics? First of all, Medvedev’s dismissal is hardly an exile to Siberia. In his address, Putin suggested that Medvedev’s next position would be Deputy Secretary of Russia’s Security Council. Although whatever remaining ambitions Medvedev may have had to succeed his boss as President again are surely dashed, his years of taking heat for his boss get him this important sinecure position, after which he can retire to his (allegedly) ill-gotten houses in comfort.
In fact, the Security Council featured prominently in Putin’s address announcing the shakeup, and will have an important role to play in Russia’s politics going forward. In a piece written for Russia’s own English-language state media outlet RT, analyst Bryan MacDonald predicted that Putin would reduce the role of the Presidency through changes to the Russian constitution. More power would instead be devolved to the country’s Parliament, as well as- crucially, the Security Council.
Both pro-Russian voices like MacDonald’s and critical ones like the Moscow Times speculate that the post of Security Council head is one that Putin himself will fill. His current Presidential term, set to expire in 2024, will be his last under the Russian Constitution, and his proposed changes under the Russian constituion will not alter that fact. But instead of persisting in the Presidency into his late seventies, the post of head of the Security Council would allow him to transition into the role of an “elder statesman,” retaining a leading role in Russia’s politics.
A fellow leader of a post-Soviet Republic may provide the model for how this would unfold in Russia. Since its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan had known only one ruler- Nursultan Nazarbayev, with whom Putin has long enjoyed friendly relations. In March of last year, Nazarbayev announced that, at the age of seventy-eight, he would step down as President, but remain as head of Kazakhstan’s own Security Council. As if to confirm that Nursultan’s importance to Kazakhstan’s political system, the country’s parliament voted to rename the capital city, formerly known as Astana, in his honor. Another comparison would be Raul Castro, who in 2018 relinquised the Cuban Presidency to Miguel Diaz-Canel, while retaining Chairmanship of the Communist Party of Cuba, regarded as the more important of the two offices in the country’s Cold War-vintage political system.
Nominated to succeed Medvedev is Mikhail Mishustin, who was so obscure outside of Russia that until today he did not have an English language Wikipedia page. The picture of a career bureaucrat, Mishustin previously headed up Russia’s tax collection service, where he increased the rate of collection by twenty percent during his tenure, an impressive achievement for a place where most taxes went uncollected during the 1990s and even the early years of Putin’s time. It is still too early to say that he is Putin’s choice to succeed him in the office of President, but if he would be then he would pose even less of a political threat than Medvedev did.
It has been a commonly expressed hope in the West that the twilight of the Putin era would bring about a fundamental political change in Russia, one more favorable to global liberal sensibilities. What today’s events show is that Russia’s President has anticipated this, and is looking to gradually transition himself into his golden years while ensuring his political system outlasts him, with the Presidency itself defanged and in the hands of a reliable manager who can handle day to day administration capably while Putin eases into the role of “elder statesman.”
While many of Russia’s youth would like a sea change to follow his long reign (he is the Russian leader with the longest time in power since Joseph Stalin), just as many, according to an excellent piece in the Financial Times, either passively or actively support the system he has built continuing. As for the attitudes of the younger generation of Russian leaders and politicians, a clue is provided by a thorough and in-depth study of the attitudes (expressed anonymously) of younger members of Russia’s foreign service based in Europe, conducted for the European Council on Foreign Relations.
While most of the thirtysomething diplomats profiled in the study express more independent and free-thinking views than the standard Kremlin line, they do not view the West as a positive model for their country the way many of their pre-Putin forebears did in the 1990s. What Putin has done is ensure that he will be followed by a person or persons that may not be exactly molded in his image, but will not be molded in the image of a Western democrat either. Statesmen and policymakers in this country and around the world will need to contend with that long after he is gone from the world stage for good.