A few people saw it coming. In fact, there was oft-dismissed chatter that after the last presidential election in Russia, President Vladimir Putin would have a widespread shakeup in his government to prepare for a future with or without him. But nobody was expecting it to be this complete with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the rest of the government resigning following Putin’s annual state of the nation address.
Now, the question everyone’s asking: “What does Putin have up his sleeve?” After all, he’s been in power for two decades, sidestepping the Russian Constitution by trading places with Medvedev between his two stints as President. Currently, their constitution prohibits more than two consecutive terms, so Putin served twice, took a term off to pretend to be Prime Minister, then returned for two more terms. Among the major constitutional changes he intends to make is a change in this loophole, and therein lies a hint about what he’s planning.
While many in the west are seeing this as an opportunity for Putin to consolidate power, that’s a ludicrous notion. After two decades crafting the government to answer solely to him, saying that he’s trying to have more control over Russia is like saying Elon Musk needs more control over Tesla. Like Musk, Putin has full control over his domain. He’s not quite a dictator, but whatever he says is what ends up happening one way or another.
Others see it as a way for him to circumvent the rules so he can retain power beyond 2024 when his final term is supposed to be completed. If that’s the case, then he’s doing a very poor job of making it happen. His proposed changes would not only prevent any future presidents from staying in power for longer than two terms, but would also mean he would be cutting himself off. One theory is that he’s just going to transfer most of the necessary power to the Prime Minister’s office, which he’ll take over after installing a puppet president with reduced control over affairs.
It’s possible, but this theory seems far less likely than the obvious one. The most likely scenario is that Putin is in legacy-building mode. He has four years to build his legend and make sure history remembers him for more than just being a long-term leader. He wants to be appreciated. He wants to be loved. He wants to be remembered forever as the man who made Russia great again.
This jibes with the constitutional changes he’s proposing. Not only does he want to make sure none of his successors can stay in office as long as he has, but he’s also talking about limiting presidential powers and putting more control in the hands of their legislative branch. This makes sense as far as a legacy-building strategy, giving more power to the people who have direct access to their government officials.
Putin wants to do all of these sweeping changes through popular referendums. This is another indicator he’s trying to secure his place in history and his popularity in his final years in charge. By putting the power in the people’s hand to decide how the constitution is to be changed, he’s appealing to the newfound sense of freedom that the older generations of Russians are still trying to embrace. Those who lived behind the Iron Curtain are often still dubious about Putin’s motives and decisions. Setting it up like this should bring even some of his harshest critics to his side.
Lest we forget, Vladimir Putin is one of the most narcissistic leaders in the world today. He thrives on a vibrant and glorious status quo, one that accepts he’s a beloved leader and never questions whether or not his decisions are right. But that image has been fading in recent years. His critics are multiplying. He’s less popular today than any time in the last two decades, which is why it’s important that he replaced the whole government. His hope is that things will be so unambiguously better, any doubt that it was the legislators’ fault for previous failures will be wiped away.
The second theory is much, much darker. If he knows something is going to be happening soon and needs the people to be satisfied with him in order to do it, this move also makes sense. It is, admittedly, a very slight possibility, but if he’s going to be taking the country into future challenges such as war, this would be the precursory move to make. If he knows something is coming soon that’s out of his control, then the move also makes sense. There’s no telling what that might be (maybe aliens contacted him) but it would bode ill for his nation and possibly the world.
Whatever Vladimir Putin is doing, the endgame isn’t going to play out for a while. Some will embrace the brave new world he’s establishing in Russia. Others will remain skeptical. Whatever he has planned, it’s going to be something huge.