Old autocrats rarely resign, nor do they just fade away. So when Vladimir Putin slipped proposals for a few changes to the Russian Constitution into his annual state-of-the-nation talkathon last Wednesday, followed immediately by the resignation of the entire government, the presumption was that the president, who is 67, was laying the groundwork to extend his 20-year reign past the expiration of his current term in 2024.
What he proposed, however, was nothing so simple as changing the two-consecutive-terms limit set by the Russian Constitution. Mr. Putin doesn’t like to tamper with the existing order, which is fully under his control, and the last time he pulled a fast one to prolong his stay in power — the infamous office swap with Dmitri Medvedev — Russians took to the streets in indignation.
So this time, mused the Kremlinologists, the president was starting his machinations four years in advance and keeping them sufficiently confusing to blunt resistance, head off an incipient succession struggle and keep everyone off balance.
What he proposed was: to give the lower house of Parliament more power to pick cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, all of whom are currently proposed by the president and rubber-stamped by the legislature; to bar a president from serving more than two terms overall (it’s currently two consecutive terms); and to give some teeth to the currently toothless State Council.
Mr. Putin named as prime minister someone who had been on nobody’s radar, Mikhail Mishustin, until now the head of the tax authority. Mr. Mishustin is considered competent but not threatening to Mr. Putin, and he knows a lot of secrets that could help his boss should anyone among the elite get uppity.
The measures suggested several scenarios. The most compelling was that Mr. Putin would retain control through the newly empowered State Council. His successor as president will be downgraded, so Mr. Putin would retain considerable power from behind the scenes.
The advantage of this system would be that, while exercising command, Mr. Putin could blame the prime minister for any shortcomings, and also the Parliament for appointing the prime minister. Staying off the main stage would also allow Mr. Putin to reduce his workload and better enjoy his many billions.
Whatever his ultimate intentions, Mr. Putin has the authority and popularity to get the constitutional amendments through a referendum without any serious resistance, and the time to plot his next move. What that means for the West is that there will be no change in policy until 2024, and possibly very little after that.
Read the original text at The New York Times.