Russia's entire cabinet resigned en masse in a plan that would help Putin keep power indefinitely. Here's everything we know.

sbaker@businessinsider.com (Sinéad Baker)
Vladimir Putin

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

  • Russia's prime minister and cabinet abruptly resigned on Wednesday after President Vladimir Putin outlined proposed constitutional changes that could increase his power after his presidency.
  • The changes would limit and decrease the power of future presidents after Putin's term ends in 2024.
  • Though Putin has painted the changes as a pro-democracy move, they can be seen as Putin's trying to keep his grip on the country he has essentially ruled since 1999.
  • The resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was likely planned with Putin and will be a boost to the president, rather than as an act of protest. Putin has also named Medvedev's successor.
  • Here's what we know about Putin's plans and what his pick for Medvedev's replacement means.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The Russian government headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned en masse on Wednesday moments after President Vladimir Putin proposed constitutional changes that could extend his power after his presidency ends.

Putin proposed changes that would weaken the powers of the presidency for future presidents, as he is expected to vacate the role in 2024, and strengthen the role of the country's parliament, where he might then move to.

Putin described the move as one that would enhance democracy, but experts believe the move was a calculated one that would only help him keep power over a country that he has led, in some form, since 1999.

Here's what's going on.

Putin outlined a slate of changes that would weaken the presidency after he leaves

Putin used a televised speech on Wednesday to suggest changes to Russia's constitution that would limit the maximum number of presidential terms that one person can hold to two — while Putin himself has held four under current constitutional rules.

He also suggested that Parliament should choose the country's prime minister and cabinet officials instead of the president, giving his successor less power over the direction of the running of the country.

Vladimir Putin

Reuters

Putin also proposed restricting the requirements for presidential candidates, which include forbidding them to hold foreign citizenship or residency permits.

He has suggested that this should all be put to Russian people in a referendum. 

These changes could herald more powerful future for Putin

Under Russia's current constitution, Putin must vacate the presidency in 2024. Under the current rules, presidents can only serve two consecutive terms.

Putin is currently on his fourth presidency, which he managed to make happen by having Medvedev step in as president 2008 and 2012 while Putin was prime minister.

Here's a list of the years he's been in power:

  • 1999-2000: Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin
  • 2000-2004: President (first term)
  • 2004-2008: President (second term)
  • 2008-2012: Prime Minister under Medvedev
  • 2012-2016: President (third term)
  • 2016-2024: President (fourth term)

Putin's changes would mean that no one else would be able to be president for as long as he has.

In 2024, he could also return to his previous role as prime minister — with a more powerful parliament and weakened presidential successor.

Putin and Medvedev

Reuters/Sputnik Photo Agency

This is why experts, critics, and competitors see Putin's proposed changes as those designed to increase his own future power, rather than simply an effort to ensure no one else stays in power for as long as he has.

Putin has not yet said when the proposals would be voted on or come into effect.

Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider's Ryan Pickrell that these changes show how Putin is likely to have a key role in the country even after his presidency ends.

He said they show "thinking about not only Putin's future but also what the country looks like once Putin isn't solely running the show, even if he's still kind of the power behind the throne."

"Wherever Putin ends up, exactly what his title is will be somewhat less important," he said.

Alexey Makarkin, a political analyst at Moscow think tank Center for Political Technologies, told The Guardian that the changes are a "distinct signal" that Putin will not find a way to continue as president, and that he could remain as the head of the State Council, a group that advises the president.

putin and medvedev

Maxim Shipenkov/AP

This would be similar to what happened in Kazakhstan last year, when Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down from the presidency last year but remained head of the security council and the ruling party.

The New York Times said Putin would "likely" do something similar, noting that Nazarbayev took the title of "leader of the people" in his new role.

Opposition politician Leonid Volkov said: "It's clear to everyone that everything is going exclusively towards setting Putin up to rule for life," Reuters reported.

Medvedev, long considered Putin's 'lapdog,' resigned with his cabinet — but in deference or defiance?

Medvedev spoke on state TV shortly after Putin's announcement, painting the proposed changes as inevitable.

He said that "after those amendments are adopted," there would be "significant changes" to "the balance of power, namely to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power."

He then announced that he was resigning.

FILE PHOTO: Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev listens to Chief Executive of Rosneft Igor Sechin during a meeting at the Gorki residence outside Moscow, Russia, October 1, 2019. Sputnik/Ekaterina Shtukina/Pool via REUTERS

Reuters

"In this context," he continued, "it is evident that we, as the government of the Russian Federation, should provide our country's president with an opportunity to take all the necessary decisions in these conditions. I believe it right for the government of the Russian Federation to step down in conformity with Article 117 of Russia's Constitution."

He said while sitting behind Putin: "Under these conditions, I believe it would be right for the government of the Russian Federation in its current state to resign."

Putin then thanked Medvedev for his service: "Not everything was done, but everything never works out in full," he said.

putin medvedev

Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov/Pool via Reuters

While it is possible that Medvedev's resignation contained an element of protest, his statements present the appearance that he was resigning to make way for Putin's plans — a sign of deference consistent with the pairs' dealings in the past.

Putin announced on Wednesday that Medvedev that would start a new job as the deputy head of the Security Council, which Putin chairs, suggesting the move could have been a coordinated plan.

Medvedev has previously been described as Putin's "lapdog" and "poodle," and he was considered little more than a placeholder when he took over as president from Putin for those four years.

Though Medvedev has publicly clashed with Putin before, many are dismissive of his presidency as not a real one, and a proxy for Putin.

Putin

Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

However, Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis firm R.Politik, told The Wall Street Journal: "This is an unexpected divorce between Putin and Medvedev."

"Putin is looking for somebody who can help implement his constitutional reform, through which he will want to control his future successor," she said. "And it appears Medvedev is not that person."

Though Putin has been dealing with a slip in his popularity — thus slightly weakening his grip on power — he remains much more popular than Medvedev. Perhaps Putin hopes this shift of power would satisfy Russians' desire for change.

The idea that Putin might fire Medvedev, given his low popularity rating, is also not a new one, and former Kremlin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov  told The Journal Putin's popularity levels would "really shoot up" if he did.

Putin picked someone who appears skilled but little known as the next prime minister — and he could prove popular without being a threat

Russia's ruling party on Thursday unanimously backed Putin's choice to replace Medvedev as prime minister.

In a surprise move, Putin picked Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the Federal Tax Service — who is barely known in Russia.

Mikhail Mishustin

Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS

Mishustin still needs to be approved in a confirmation vote in the parliament's lower house, but Gallyamov, the former speechwriter, told The Journal this pick could prove popular.

"That might satisfy the public's desire for new faces," he said. "[Mishustin] is a technocrat and Russia definitely needs economic reforms."

The New York Times also noted that Mishustin's relative obscurity and background means that he has little political machinery behind him, so could end up relying on Putin and not prove a political threat. 

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