Russia PM Medvedev quits as Putin plans referendum

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Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has resigned hours after Vladimir Putin said he planned a referendum to approve major changes to the constitution, in a sign that the president intends to extend his 20-year rule in a new capacity when his term of office expires in 2024.

In a move that paves the way for the biggest political shake-up in Russia in a decade, Mr Medvedev stepped down along with the entire cabinet. Mr Putin said his prime minister would take up a newly created position as deputy head of the Kremlin’s security council, and asked the government to remain in post until a new administration was appointed.

Mr Medvedev said the cabinet wanted to “give our country’s president the chance to make all the necessary decisions” regarding the constitutional change.

The changes came after Mr Putin said in his annual state of the nation address that he would put a raft of constitutional changes to a “people’s vote”.

The long-rumoured steps would weaken presidential power to the benefit of parliament, the prime minister and the State Council, an advisory body, said Mr Putin.

The changes envisaged by Mr Putin include limiting future presidents to two terms in office; allowing the Duma, the lower house of parliament, to appoint the prime minister and the cabinet; and giving the upper house the power to confirm the heads of Russia’s powerful security services and judges.

Immediately after Mr Putin’s announcement, the head of Russia’s election commission said she was prepared to hold the referendum “at any moment” as soon as the changes were ready. “That’s our job,” Ella Pamfilova told Interfax.

Mr Putin, 67, has long been coy about whether he intends to stay on after 2024, when he is legally obliged to step down as president. But the decision appeared to confirm longtime speculation that he intends to either become prime minister for a second time or head a revamped State Council as a supreme leader figure in the model of China’s Deng Xiaoping.

Some analysts had also speculated he could change the constitution to run for a third straight term or become head of a proposed joint state with neighbouring Belarus.

The Kremlin has struggled with boosting Mr Putin’s flagging approval ratings, hovering near record lows, amid a stagnant economy where real incomes have fallen for half a decade. During Wednesday’s address Mr Putin made a concession to Russians facing hard times by announcing major social spending on child welfare, public sector salaries and free school lunches. 

Anton Siluanov, finance minister, said the promises would cost Rbs400bn to Rbs500bn ($6.5bn to $8.1bn), close to 4 per cent of Russia’s gross domestic product.

Mr Putin first publicly floated the constitutional changes in December at his heavily choreographed annual press conference, when he suggested banning future leaders from following his example and ruling for two terms. 

After serving his first two terms, Mr Putin installed Mr Medvedev as president from 2008 to 2012, then swapped jobs with him in a move known as the “castling”, after the chess move.

“The transition of power is certainly underway, and Medvedev has been removed from the transition conversation,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of Russian political analysis firm R. Politik.

“Everyone has been sick of Medvedev for ages. He should have resigned after the [2018] presidential elections, but Putin needed to resolve who his replacement would be and where he would put Medvedev. Now Putin has decided what to do with his future and they are going their separate ways.”

In his speech, Mr Putin appeared to confirm that Russia would continue the authoritarian and confrontational stance with the west that began after his return to the Kremlin.

Future presidents will be required to have lived in Russia for the preceding 25 years and never held a foreign passport or residence permit. Russia’s constitution will also take precedence over international law, meaning Moscow could spurn rulings from courts including the European Court of Human Rights. 

With heightened fears of a renewed arms race after the US withdrew from a key cold war-era missile ban treaty last year, and another agreement signed during Mr Medvedev’s presidency set to expire in December, Mr Putin also said Russia was confident of its superior weaponry.

“For the first time in all history of nuclear weaponry, including the Soviet period, we aren’t playing catch-up with anyone. Other states have yet to create the weapons that Russia already has,” he said.

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