• Putin unexpectedly announced constitutional reforms that will change checks and balances and somewhat limit presidential power, while also empowering Duma.
  • Medvedev’s government resigned and technocrat PM formed new government – fresh faces internally, while foreign, defense and financial minister stayed same.
  • Amendments are part of Putin’s plan to prepare himself an exit strategy for leaving presidential office in 2024, yet most expect him to remain active in politics.
  • There’s a lot of doom and gloom analysis about Putin’s autocratic ambitions, but it’s all just speculation at this point – too early in process and many details missing.

Putin’s bombshell announcement on January 15th entailing sweeping constitutional reforms, along with the voluntary resignation of Medvedev’s government, caught everyone by surprise. The big question on everyone’s mind is, if he’s preparing his exit strategy or planning to crown himself Tzar for life?

Given his 4th presidential term ends 2024, theories about Putin’s succession were being floated for some time, chiefly the option of legislating away presidential term limits. Last week’s announcement has put an end to that debate as Putin set his exit strategy in motion well ahead of schedule and promising not to be president after 2024, yet nowhere stating that he will be leaving politics.

Combined, the proposed constitutional amendments will be shaking up the checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the Russian government. The power of the president is getting diminished by giving the state Duma power to confirm the prime minister and his government, while the president appoints heads of security services. The Federation council will be able to remove judges from the Constitutional and Supreme courts, yet the Constitutional court gets more leverage over legality of federal laws. Similarly, the role of the State Council, an advisory body formed under and chaired by Putin, will be enshrined in the constitution. Altogether, Russia will remain a presidential system, but the role of the prime minister and government will be strengthened, while it will be harder for any future Russian president to be as powerful as Putin was under his tenure. At the same time Putin is creating for himself multiple “retirement” options, where he can forego being in the spotlight, while retaining some kind of “gray cardinal” position in the background.

With the sudden announcement and streamlined implementation – Medvedev resigning and new prime minister being a loyal technocrat – Putin is chiefly shaking up Russia’s polity internally by reshuffling existing power dynamics, yet keeping governance and power centralized within established Kremlin circles. Given Russians have grown increasingly wary of focusing on war and geopolitics, bringing forth foreign sanctions that stagnated the economy, a major part of Putin’s address was an increase in public spending and fighting the omnipresent issue of embezzlement. Consequently, the purpose of the reshuffle is having a fresh administration focusing on internal governance, while keeping the existing foreign, defense and finance ministers. Altogether, Russian foreign policy will not see any major changes, while the internal reshuffle is still a work in progress and only time will show more details of Putin’s plan.

Admittedly, part of the proposed changes are somewhat nativist and are squarely aimed at the opposition, though truth be told, no other Russian party has the means or organizational reach to seriously threaten United Russia (Putin’s party) in elections. The planned constitutional amendments will raise residency requirements for presidential candidates, as well as forbid high ranking officials from holding a foreign citizenship or residency permit. On one hand this is squarely aimed at some popular opposition figures (Navalny), but also rooted in the woes of the Yeltsin era when the decentralization of governance nearly brought the breakup of the federation and many corrupt high ranking officials and oligarchs had foreign ties.

Putin’s unexpected announcement can be (and is too often) interpreted through a Manichean lens. For many analysts and pundits it’s an autocratic power grab by their beloved enfant terrible. Contrary, the official line promises more checks and balances in Russia’s governance. Either of the extremes should be taken with a grain of salt, as Putin’s reforms are a work in progress with many questions left open. The only certain part is that Putin’s exit plan has definitely been put into motion. Given the disillusionment of many due to sanctions and the nascent Russian civil society showing its teeth with protests and demanding a focus on internal and social issues, the end result of Putin’s reformation is far from decided.