What is Putin up to with surprise political shake-up?


Moscow (AFP)

With the shock replacement of his government and plans for a constitutional overhaul, President Vladimir Putin has set in motion sweeping changes to Russia's political order.

But what is the longtime Russian leader really up to? And -- with Putin facing the end in 2024 of what is supposed to be his final term -- what does it mean for his hold on power?

Analysts, Kremlin critics and opinion-makers seem to agree: the 67-year-old leader is shaking up a system that has been losing public confidence, while laying the groundwork for his own political future.

- What future for Putin? -

In his state of the nation address on Wednesday, Putin laid out constitutional changes that would reduce the power of the president and boost the authority of parliament, with lawmakers choosing the prime minister and cabinet.

Experts said his plans to limit the post's powers is a clear sign that Putin is preparing to leave the presidency and take on a new role.

"Putin will remain the main figure in Russia, as he has been for 20 years," said Russian political analyst Maria Lipman.

Some have suggested that Putin could create a system similar to the one put in place by the longtime leader of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who last year resigned as president but remained as chief of the ruling party and "national leader" with wide-ranging powers.

Putin could stay on after 2024 as head of the State Council, an advisory body made up of regional governors and political appointees, as well as chief of the powerful Security Council.

On Wednesday he proposed expanding the State Council's role and enshrining its status in the constitution.

"We are seeing some pieces of the puzzle, there are some we can't see, and some we will never see. But in the end only Putin knows the plan," Lipman said.

- Why now? -

While his approval ratings still hover around 70 percent, Putin seems to have understood that many Russians are displeased.

A few hours after the president said Wednesday that there was "a clear demand for change", Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had already announced the government's resignation.

Putin was re-elected with a sweeping majority in 2018, but his approval ratings dropped after an unpopular pension reform.

Russians' incomes have also been falling as the economy stagnates, under pressure from a drop in oil prices and Western sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Growing discontent saw thousands take to the streets of Moscow last summer against the exclusion of opposition candidates from local elections, in the biggest anti-government protests since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 after a stint as prime minister.

Parliamentary elections are due in 2021 and polls show the ruling United Russia party with the support of only 33 percent of Russians. The party is so unpopular that many of its candidates chose to run as independents in the September regional and municipal votes.

- What role for the new PM ? -

Medvedev, who is one of Putin's oldest allies and served as president from 2008 to 2012, had become a scapegoat and a liability, with approval ratings of between 30 and 38 percent.

It was time for a fresh start. Putin's nominee to replace him, longtime federal tax chief Mikhail Mishustin, is a relatively obscure figure but has solid credentials.

The 53-year-old is considered an efficient administrator who was able to transform Russia's sclerotic and corrupt tax service into a modern and respected institution.

An unlikely successor to Putin, Mishustin can focus on making changes that will boost the government's popularity.

"Mishustin's elevation to Russia's PM is designed to get more competent leadership in cabinet which will have to focus on (the) all-important domestic agenda," Dmitry Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said on Twitter.

He will have his work cut out for him -- more than half of Russians said in a recent poll that they believe the "worst is yet to come" for the economy.

Putin has put forward a slew of plans to reboot the economy and improve living standards, including vast infrastructure projects, increased payouts to families and improvements to health and education.

"Mishustin must implement Putin's programme -- projects costing up to 26 trillion rubles ($421 billion/378 billion euros). By 2024," business daily Vedomosti wrote on Thursday.

"The delay in implementation and weak economic growth were at the heart of criticisms of Medvedev."