ANALYSIS: The dramatic resignation of the Russian government and Vladimir Putin’s announcement of sweeping changes to the Russian constitution bring both clarity and fog to the greatest riddle of Russian politics.
First, the clarity: it now seems more likely than ever that Putin will step down when his current term as president ends in 2024, as the Russian constitution requires, but still intends to cling on to power.
Why else would he propose weakening the power of the presidency unless he wants to deny his successor the sweeping authority he currently enjoys?
But exactly how the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government will change, and where Putin himself will end up in that arrangement, remain as clear as mud.
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That opacity is almost certainly deliberate. It keeps rival members of the elite unsure of where power will lie when Putin steps down, and keeps them preoccupied with outmaneuvering and second guessing one another rather than cosying up to a clear successor.
That is great for an authoritarian leader trying to maximise his control of the country in the last years of his presidency, but less useful for those preoccupied with longer term plans – like taking out a mortgage or planning Russia’s economic policy.
Speculation will focus on two of Putin’s suggestions: formalising the role of the State Council, currently a board of ministers and regional governors with no clearly defined mandate, and moving Dmitry Medvedev, the now former prime minister, to deputise for him at the national security council.
That, says Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, suggests Putin intends to maintain control of Russia’s powerful security services even if he leaves the Kremlin.
As for the question of the actual succession, it is as murky as ever.
A possibility is that Putin may be trying to carve out an unelected role as a kind of supreme leader, comparable with the role of Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran or Xi Jinping in China.
Some had thought Putin would trial potential future presidents in the role of prime minister. But Mikhail Mishustin, the former tax service chief nominated as acting prime minister, was until now an obscure civil servant.
Back in 1999, so was Putin, so Mishustin should not be ruled out. But bookies favourites Sergei Sobyanin, the competent but not especially charismatic mayor of Moscow, and Sergei Shoigu, the popular defence minister, remain very much in the running for the Kremlin.
“This is an exercise in keeping options open,” said Dr Sam Greene, the head of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.
“It doesn’t matter who is president because maybe the presidency won’t matter.”