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Putin Proposes Sweeping Changes to Russian Constitution, Possibly Prolonging His Grip on Power

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In Russia, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned Wednesday along with his entire Cabinet in a move that surprised many in Moscow and abroad. The move came as Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed sweeping constitutional changes to expand the power of the parliament and the State Council while weakening the presidency. Critics of Putin say the proposals could help him keep power after his final presidential term ends in 2024. The Russian parliament is expected to vote today to confirm Putin’s pick for new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, a bureaucrat who runs Russia’s tax service. The Russian newspaper Kommersant has described the recent political shake-up as “the January revolution.” We are joined by Tony Wood, author of “Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War.” Wood is a member of the New Left Review editorial board. He is also the author of “Chechnya: The Case for Independence.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Russia, where Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned Wednesday, along with his entire Cabinet, in a move that surprised many in Moscow and abroad. The move came as Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed sweeping constitutional changes to expand the power of the parliament and the State Council, while weakening the presidency. Critics of Putin said the proposals could help him retain power after his final presidential term ends in 2024.

AMY GOODMAN: The lower house of the Russian parliament voted today to confirm Putin’s pick for new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, a bureaucrat who runs Russia’s tax service. One Russian newspaper described the recent political shake-up as “the January revolution.”

Well, we’re joined now by Tony Wood, author of Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War. He’s a member of the New Left Review editorial board. He’s also the author of Chechnya: The Case for Independence.

So, lay out what happened. Were you shocked by the developments on Wednesday in Moscow?

TONY WOOD: Yeah, well, certainly there were a series of surprises. I don’t think anyone was expecting something of this scale. But on the other hand, I think a lot of people who have been observing Russia closely would say we need to see how this plays out. Right? I think we should greet this as really a kind of opening gambit in a game that’s going to be played out over the next few months. So I think we can’t really rush to say what exactly the effects of this are going to be straightaway.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And just what were the things that he was proposing, though? What is it that Putin said yesterday that he wants to do? How does he want to change the Constitution?

TONY WOOD: So, yeah, he gave his annual address to both houses of parliament. It was a very long speech. And buried sort of towards the end of it were a series of modifications to the Constitution, one of which is to transfer power, much more power, to the parliament than is currently the case. There’s a quirk of the Russian system that it’s hyper-presidential. The parliament has no right to nominate the government. You can be the largest party in an election, and that doesn’t mean you get to form the Cabinet. You don’t get the prime minister. Now the power of nominating the prime minister and Cabinet will go to the parliament. So that’s a fairly major shift. But at the same time, Putin sort of slightly took away from that by saying it will remain a centralized presidential system. So he’s sort of taking away power from the presidency while reaffirming it. So, it’s a little ambiguous there.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it significant who the people are, that Medvedev has resigned — he’ll become deputy head of the Security Council — and who the new prime minister is?

TONY WOOD: Well, so, the new prime minister, I would think he — we should see him as a caretaker figure, really. There are elections to the parliament due in 2021. And really that’s when we’ll see what kind of system crystallizes out of this. It’s possible that Putin himself will want to be that prime minister and rule indefinitely from a newly empowered parliament. And so the nomination of Mishustin is really a signal that, you know, there is all still to play for.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that he was head of the tax service, does that matter?

TONY WOOD: No. In some ways, I think, you know, he’s just a reliable bureaucrat. He did increase the tax takes, so he’s vaguely competent, which is more than can be said for a lot of leading figures in the Russian elite. But it’s also that he’s not — he doesn’t have an existing power base. So, for example, if Putin had nominated one of the more prominent security ministry figures to that role, that would have been a signal that that person is a designated successor — excuse me. The fact that it’s Mishustin, who no one had really heard of 'til yesterday, means that this person is not going to stay in that role. So he's a temporary figure.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain, Tony — I mean, it’s not obvious why it is that the entire Russian government resigned just hours after Putin’s announcement. And also the fact that Medvedev was widely seen as Putin’s protégé. Was this a demotion for him, or what exactly did Putin intend?

TONY WOOD: Yeah, that’s also a little unclear. I mean, one of the curiosities of the current situation is that no one can really tell whether Medvedev has been booted upstairs or downstairs, because the new role that he has been given didn’t exist before — deputy head of the Security Council — so it’s not really clear what kind of power he will have.

The thing that can be said is that Medvedev was somewhat of a liability for the Putin administration. Currently, he’s really not very popular, has overseen government measures that have been really rejected by the population. He’s been wrapped up in various corruption scandals. And so, it was a way of making him take a hit for the government’s recent failures without visibly demoting him, I think. It’s a kind of dignified exit for Medvedev. But certainly the resignation of the entire Cabinet was not at all required by the changes Putin was recommending, especially since they haven’t even happened yet. So that’s a curiosity, definitely.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see Putin doing something along the lines of what the Chinese President Xi did with getting rid of term limits?

TONY WOOD: I think, actually, we need to see this change and the set of changes that he’s talking about as designed to avoid that solution. I think one of the reasons that these things have happened is that since 2018, when Putin was re-elected to another six-year term, the question on everyone’s minds has been “What is going to happen in 2024? Is he going to stay forever? Is he going to leave?” And what these changes do is really open up that question to say he’s probably not going to stay as president, because he can’t do that, but here are a series of other roles he could slip into, and he will have some kind of alternative power base.

The other thing it says is that whoever becomes president after him is not going to have anywhere near as much power as Putin has had. So, what’s confusing about this, I think — and this is why I think we need to see how this plays out — is that it looks like Putin is carving out a way for him to slide into a parallel role and remain powerful. So, he’s remaking a system, but breaking it, as well, so that no one has as much power as he used to have.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Tony, your book, Russia Without Putin, makes the argument, in fact, that there has been far too much focus on Putin as an individual figure as against the broader context of the structures in place in Russia. So could you talk about this move of Putin, the way it’s being interpreted, in the context of the arguments that you make in your book?

TONY WOOD: Yeah. I think one of the main things I want to do in the book is to draw attention to the Russian political system as a system, and that Putin himself, you know, he’s regularly described as a kind of autocrat, as if his personal whims totally decided everything that happened in Russia. I just think that’s not the case. He’s certainly a crucial figure. He’s at the center of this very personalized system. But on the other hand, he is also an arbiter among a different — a variety of interests within the Russian elite. And so, he’s really — you see him more not as the czar, but as a kind of fulcrum holding it all together.

And I think these moves that he’s now undertaking really are going to shake up a lot of things within the Russian elite, and we’re going to see different figures jockeying for power over the next few years. And that, I think, really should encourage us to look beyond Putin, precisely to see who else is jockeying for power and what it is they’re trying to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Alexei Navalny, opposition leader, very prominent, said, “The main result of Putin’s speech: what idiots (and/or crooks) are all those who said that Putin would leave in 2024.” He also said he believes any referendum on the constitutional changes would be “fraudulent crap.” You write extensively about him in your book.

TONY WOOD: I do, yeah. He’s certainly a key figure within the opposition. I mean, one of the constitutional changes that Putin is proposing to introduce is to introduce a requirement for anyone who wants to be Russian president to have been a resident in Russia for 25 years. This, in theory, would rule out Navalny, because he has been a resident in the U.S. when he studied at Yale. Ironically, it would also have ruled out Putin when he took power, because he had been living in East Germany. So, these new requirements, they’re somewhat designed to target Navalny and other opposition figures, like Khodorkovsky, who has been a resident in Switzerland some of the time. So, these are — definitely, Putin is also seeking to protect his flank from oppositionists such as Navalny.

But I think it’s true that if there is a vote on these changes, there’s very likely to be fraud, but what’s curious is that Putin did not use the word “referendum.” He used the word “voting.” And it’s noticeable that other figures within the Russian elite were very quick to say, “No, no, no. There will be no referendum. This can be taken care of in parliament.” So I think any democratic implications of this are being shut down very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tony Wood, we want thank you so much for coming in, author of Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War, a member of the New Left Review editorial board, also author of Chechnya: The Case for Independence.

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