Commentary: Russia’s government resigns; Putin must have plans

Putin, who would have to leave office in 2024, may be looking at reforms that keep him in power.

By Timothy Frye / The Washington Post

In a surprise move, the Russian government headed by Dmitry Medvedev resigned Wednesday. Medvedev had served as prime minister since 2012 and had often been mentioned as a potential successor to President Vladimir Putin should he leave office in 2024, as required by the Russian Constitution.

In Russia’s presidential system, the prime minister is nominated by the president and approved by the parliament. The prime minister heads the government and is largely responsible for implementing and coordinating policy. As there is no vice president, the prime minister is also the legal successor of the president. Putin held the position from 2008 to 2012 after stepping down as president in accordance with the two-term limit specified in the Russian Constitution.

What’s behind the mass resignations?

• Medvedev’s performance as prime minister led to much public criticism.

Since August 2018, over 60 percent of Russians disapproved of Medvedev’s performance as prime minister in monthly public opinion polls. This stands in contrast to Putin, whose disapproval ratings have hovered in the low 30s.

Medvedev’s resignation takes place against a backdrop of economic stagnation. Economic growth has been flat since 2014, and forecasts of future economic growth are 1 percent to 2 percent at best for the foreseeable future. In addition, the euphoria of the annexation of the Crimea has largely faded. While Russians are happy that Russia is again a player in international politics, they appear to be increasingly sensitive to the economic costs of its new global status and especially interested in resolving domestic economic issues.

• Putin may want to shake up Russian politics.

The decision to accept Medvedev’s resignation (which was surely coordinated with the president) gives weight to arguments that Putin is interested in more serious institutional changes than many had expected. Putin faces term limits again in 2024. While it is not clear that he will step down at that time, Medvedev’s resignation may be part of broader plans associated with the end of scheduled term in office. Observers have speculated about possible constitutional changes that would allow Putin to keep power after 2024, perhaps in a new position.

In his address to the nation Tuesday, Putin announced support for a plan to shift some powers from the presidency to the Russian parliament. He argued that Russia should remain a presidential republic, but he also proposed that the Russian parliament should be able to name the prime minister and other cabinet ministers. In its current form, the Russian parliament rarely opposes initiatives from the executive branch and largely serves as a forum for interest group lobbying.

The resignation of the government also allows the president to nominate ministers to a new government. This may allow the president to introduce changes in policy. Medvedev’s government was largely seen as protecting the status quo. A new government might help strengthen the Kremlin’s hand in the parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2021.

Medvedev will be assigned to a new position in the Russian Security Council, but the likelihood of him succeeding Putin seems greatly diminished. In his place, Putin has named Mikhail Mishustin, the former head of the tax service. Mishustin is seen as a technocrat without political ambitions, giving further credence to the view that Putin may be using constitutional changes to retain power beyond 2024.

Timothy Frye is the Marshall D. Shulman professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University, and a visiting fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation. For other commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by political scientists from universities around the country, go to www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage.

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