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Power Transition or Constitutional Coup: What Russian Government’s Resignation Means
16 January, 2020
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Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government announces resignation after President Vladimir Putin's message to the Federal Assembly (archived photo by Vladimir Putin (left) and Dmitry Medvedev, Moscow, Russia, November 25, 2011) EPA-EFE / MAXIM SHIPENKOV / POOL

On January 15, a couple of hours after the traditional message of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Federal Assembly, Dmitry Medvedev announced the resignation of the Russian government. On January 16, Russia's State Duma MPs approved the candidacy of the head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin, for the post of Prime Minister of the Russian Federation at the plenary session. 

Hromadske tried to work out whether the recent developments mean the beginning of transition of power, or Russia is facing a constitutional coup. Other questions include what governing system will be used after Putin's fourth presidential term, and in what status Putin himself will remain in power.

What Putin Proposed to the Federal Assembly

Putin proposed radical changes to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. He wants to redistribute powers between the branches of government and create a new body – the State Council.

READ MORE: Russian Government Resigns, Putin Names Federal Tax Service Head as New PM

Part of the president's powers, in this case, will be delegated to parliament. In particular, the State Duma may be entitled to independently select and approve the Prime Minister's nomination.

As things stand, this procedure is as follows: the president proposes a prime ministerial nomination for parliamentary approval and has the right to dissolve the legislature if it fails to approve the nomination three times.

The president retains control of the security agencies and the appointment of their heads. He will also be able to petition the Constitutional Court to verify the constitutionality of laws passed by parliament. With the support of the Federation Council, he will have the power to suspend the heads of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, and dismiss the prime minister, his deputies and ministers.

The next candidate for the post of head of state will have to have resided in the territory of Russia for at least 25 years (currently there is a 10-year restriction) and not have another nationality. Putin has agreed that one person will not be able to hold the office of president for more than two consecutive terms.

Putin also wants to prioritize the Russian Constitution over international law. This means that international treaties will only operate on the territory of the country if "they do not restrict the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens."

Putin suggested that these issues be submitted for countrywide debate, although noted that the proposed amendments could be adopted by parliament.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual address to the Russian Parliament, Moscow, Russia, January 15, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / YURI KOCHETKOV

Why It’s Not Really a Nationwide Referendum

Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov says it will be a vote, not a referendum, and it will not be about the basic articles of the Constitution. The President shall determine the procedure and terms of voting by a separate decree. The voting could take place as early as September 2020, experts say.

According to Andrei Buzin, the co-chairman of the Russian movement to defend the rights of the voters “Golos”, it is unlikely that the vote will be held in 2021, since this is the last year of the State Duma's powers. “The law prohibits a Russia-wide referendum in such a year. But it is possible on the 2020 single voting day, that is, on September 13,” he said.

A member of the Central Election Commission expert group and electoral law specialist, Arkady Lyubarev, believes that a vote by presidential edict cannot have legal force: "In fact, we will be offered an advisory referendum (plebiscite), which we have not had before."

With regard to the adoption of amendments by Parliament, the 1993 Constitution provides that the foundations of the constitutional order, described in the first two sections, are changed by a special procedure that requires the so-called "Constitutional Assembly".

“It follows that amendments should be made to Chapters 3-8 of the Constitution. And they can be adopted by two-thirds of the State Duma, three-quarters of the Federation Council and two-thirds of the subjects of the Federation. I have no doubt that all of these entities will adopt Putin's amendments,” Buzin says.

According to Russian political scientist, founder and publisher of the Politsovet news agency, Fyodor Krasheninnikov, Putin, as a person who is very afraid of any uncertainty, will do everything to rewrite the Constitution almost completely and without any referendum: “Putin has a whole apparatus of people who are capable of interpreting the laws in such a way.”

Putin’s announcement about the citizens voting on a package of amendments was most likely done for populist purposes. “Why not give the government such a PR campaign?” wonders Buzin. “The only question is whether the measure will pay off with a propaganda effect. Previous 'referendums' in Crimea and Donetsk indicate that there will be no particular problems with the organization. Well, domestic and foreign observers might laugh it off, but they’ve grown used to it.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev before a meeting with government members, Moscow, Russia, January 15, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / DMITRY ASTAKHOV / POOL

Why the Government Was Dismissed and What Happens to Medvedev

The news of the dismissal of the Russian government has come as a surprise to Cabinet members, sources in the government told Novaya Gazeta publication. "Everyone is in shock, the question is what's next," one of them said.

“No ministry knew anything about their future dismissal, even at the highest level. Moreover, my colleagues from the Presidential Administration were also unaware. Perhaps it was a largely spontaneous decision. Either Putin and Medvedev decided everything among themselves, or Medvedev sulked off and decided that he’s sick of it,” another source added.

Fedor Krasheninnikov believes that the dismissal of the Medvedev government is due to a lack of people’s trust. Putin has proposed to Medvedev the non-existent post of deputy chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. This is a clear downgrade for the former prime minister.

“The new post for Medvedev is, in fact, a ritual humiliation. They could have made him the head of the Constitutional Court, but instead made him [Nikolai] Patrushev’s deputy,” Krasheninnikov said.

Vladimir Putin is the President of the Security Council. The Security Council of the Russian Federation ensures security and control of state policy, assesses the military danger and military threat, and devises measures to neutralize them.

Georgy Satarov, a publicist and political scientist, a participant in the Constitutional meeting on the drafting of the new Constitution of the Russian Federation in 1993-1994, commented to Hromadske that the government was dissolved due to the need to make the economy earn money again, and this requires a different government with certain political capabilities: “The transition of Russian power started today. And this is attributed to the need for stability. Putin is afraid of instability, and transition is an unstable state of the system. At the same time, everyone is aware that transition is inevitable. All these amendments to the constitution are aimed at ensuring transition, and making the process as seamless as possible, with a return to a stable state.”

At the same time, Satarov is convinced that Medvedev's new position will play an important role in this scenario.

“This transition program was clearly not designed by the Kremlin’s top security chiefs. Therefore, control over security forces is needed now. To that end, Medvedev, one of Putin's most trusted men, is being introduced into the Security Council, the body that controls the security forces,” Satarov said.

Medvedev now holds an absolute record for a prime minister's term in the recent Russian history – he was appointed on May 8, 2012 and spent more than seven years and eight months in office.

Two hours after the dismissal of the government, Putin nominated Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the Federal Tax Service of Russia and essentially a little-known official who had held the post since 2010, to be the prime minister. On January 16, the State Duma MPs approved Mishustin's candidacy. 383 deputies voted in favor, 41 - abstained, and none opposed.

The Bell outlet noted in its article that "Mishustin is an effective technocrat: in 10 years in office, he made the Russian tax office one of the most technically equipped and progressive in the world."

“The new government will be technical, and it will do technical things. There will be no bright figures”, Krasheninnikov confirmed the decorative future of the cabinet.

What the New Governing System Will Look Like

According to Krasheninnikov, large-scale changes in the structure of power mean that Putin is essentially trying to carry out a constitutional revolution. When the constitution is rewritten – and this would be done through several constitutional laws that will amend it – a new regime will emerge.

“There are now two options: a very strong PM (Putin) with a decorative president or the head of the State Council, who concentrates all power in his hands,” he said.

At the same time, he is convinced that the Kremlin never really considered seriously the option of integration with Belarus on the eve of 2024 and the end of Putin's fourth term. “It was a cover-up for the transition option that was proposed today. They need everyone to think that Putin is interested in something outside the Russian Federation, when in fact, he isn’t. He is only interested in maintaining power. As soon as it became clear that (Alexander) Lukashenko was not going to surrender Belarus, everything was folded,” Krasheninnikov believes.

Satarov compared the Kremlin's new scenario with what happened in Kazakhstan last year. 

“After the transition, Putin plans to stay above the conflict and guarantee stability, like [Nursultan] Nazarbayev now. Perhaps, in the status of the head of the State Council, who will have real power.”

/Original report by Vsevolod Lazutin, Yana Sedova, Natalia Tikhonova

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