Same Tandem, New Music
The opening dance has always involved the same tandem. The steps have always been tightly choreographed. And the finale has always been the same.
When Vladimir Putin's second term was winding down in late 2007, and Moscow was on tenterhooks about what came next, the Kremlin leader endorsed his pliant protege Dmitry Medvedev as his successor. Putin, however, remained Russia's de facto leader—just as prime minister.
When Medvedev's term was winding down in 2011, and Moscow was on edge about what came next, the president announced he would not seek reelection and instead endorsed Putin's return to the Kremlin. Putin returned the favor by naming Medvedev his prime minister.
And here we are again. Putin's second consecutive term as president—and fourth overall—is still years away, but speculation about what happens next is already rife. And again, it is the tandem of Putin and Medvedev performing the opening dance.
After Putin, in his annual state-of-the-nation speech on January 15, called for constitutional changes—including, among other things, upgrading the status of the State Council and giving the State Duma a greater role in appointing cabinet ministers—Medvedev announced his resignation as prime minister. Putin then named Medvedev to a newly created post: Deputy Chairman of the Security Council.
Russia's political arrangements are clearly about to be shuffled. But while the details and formalities remain unclear at the moment, we can be reasonably confident about what the end goal is: keeping Putin in power beyond 2024.
And in case there was any doubt about that, the appointment of the politically unknown Mikhail Mishustin as the new prime minister should put them to rest. The obscure head of Russia's Federal Tax Service hardly looks like a successor in waiting. Had Putin appointed a stronger figure with a higher political profile like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, we would be having a very different conversation.
So what happens next? We can glean out several hints from Putin's speech and personnel moves.
Russia's Potemkin institutions are effectively ceremonial camouflage to obscure the reality of oligarchic and personal rule. But how they are shuffled, positioned, and manipulated provides hints about how that rule will be structured.
Putin's call for the elevation of the State Council from its current status as an advisory body to a governmental structure formally enshrined in the Constitution is certainly worth watching.
For years there has been speculation that plans were afoot in the Kremlin to create a powerful State Council "according to the Chinese model" that would become the country's primary executive authority. Putin would then be named the head of the council, effectively turning him into Russia's supreme ruler for life.
Putin's remarks about the State Council seems to suggest that this speculation may be accurate.
According to a report in Russky Monitor in 2017, Putin "would become not simply the President of the State Council but also the spiritual and national leader of Russia."
Putin's intention to name Medvedev to the newly created post of deputy chair of the Security Council, a powerful body coordinating national security that is chaired by the president, is also noteworthy.
Medvedev and Putin have long been attached at the hip, dating back to their time together in the St. Petersburg municipal government in the 1990s. Since Putin came to power in 2000, Medvedev has been Kremlin chief of staff, chairman of the natural gas monopoly Gazprom, and first deputy prime minister. The two have served as president and prime minister in different combinations for the past 12 years.
This suggests that the Security Council is also about to gain a higher profile. Commenting on the decision, political commentator Aleksei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, called the Security Council "today's equivalent of the Politburo."
And finally, there is the matter of the future of the presidency, for which Putin provided mixed signals. In his state-of-the-nation speech, Putin suggested constitutional changes that, on the surface, would diminish the president's powers by transferring to the State Duma the power to appoint the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, and most cabinet ministers.
The Kremlin leader added, however, that Russia must remain a "strong presidential republic," with the president retaining the power to fire the prime minister and cabinet ministers, as well as naming top defense and security officials.
Putin appears to be keeping his options open about whether to keep the presidency strong, and remain president; downgrade the office and move the real seat of power elsewhere, either the State Council or the Security Council; or establish multiple centers of power, giving him the ability to migrate among them as necessary.
We've just witnessed the opening dance. There are still many more moves to come before 2024.
January 15, 2020