Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual state of the nation address Wednesday to take the wraps off a plan for wide-reaching changes to the Constitution, proposals that led his longtime political sidekick to step down and could enable Mr. Putin to ho…

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual state of the nation address Wednesday to take the wraps off a plan for wide-reaching changes to the Constitution, proposals that led his longtime political sidekick to step down and could enable Mr. Putin to hold sway in the Kremlin indefinitely.
Among the blizzard of changes proposed by Mr. Putin, who is supposed to step down when his term ends in 2024, were an increase in the powers of parliament and a greater role for the State Council, an advisory body.
Analysts and opposition groups were still sorting through potential impacts of the changes, but many believe Mr. Putin, a onetime KGB agent who has been Russia’s dominant political force for two decades, will emerge at the end with more influence in the Kremlin.
“It’s clear to everyone that this is all done exclusively to ensure Putin’s lifetime rule,” said Leonid Volkov, a prominent Kremlin critic.
At the tail end of a speech to the two houses of the Russian parliament Wednesday, Mr. Putin unexpectedly announced that “we need a referendum on the entire package of amendments to the constitution.” He gave no indication of when the referendum, Russia’s first since 1993, would take place.
Mr. Putin’s announcement was followed swiftly by the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a longtime political ally who served as president during a brief Putin interregnum, and his entire government.
The development was a major surprise. Mr. Putin named technocrat Mikhail Mishustin, the little-known head of the national tax service, as Mr. Medvedev’s successor.
Mr. Mishustin was so obscure before his shock nomination that he did not even have an English-language Wikipedia page, and Russians expressed mystification about his unexpected promotion. “Mishustin has always been in the shadows,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the R-Politik political analysis firm.
Mr. Medvedev, who had been prime minister since 2012, said he and his government were stepping down to clear the decks for Mr. Putin’s proposed amendments to the constitution. It was unclear how Mr. Medvedev’s “resignation,” which is believed to have been ordered by Kremlin officials, would make Mr. Putin’s task easier.
Mr. Medvedev will be taking a much lower profile as deputy of the presidential Security Council. It is a measure of the confusion Mr. Putin has caused that some see this as a demotion while others speculate it is a signal that Mr. Putin is grooming his longtime ally to succeed him.
Mr. Putin, 67, who marked the 20th anniversary of his ascent to power on New Year’s Eve, is due to step down in 2024 under the current constitution, which forbids anyone from serving more than two consecutive terms. Only Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has ruled Russia longer.
“I don’t consider [the term limits] a matter of principle, but I agree with it,” Mr. Putin said in his speech.
Few in Moscow expect Mr. Putin to quietly fade away, however, and there is widespread speculation about how he might seek to prolong his rule. Among the scenarios mentioned are a shift to the role of prime minister, a position Mr. Putin held from 2008 to 2012, or leadership of a revamped and empowered State Council.
The blizzard of changes could be a strategy to keep Mr. Putin’s options open, political pundits said.
“He gave himself much more room to maneuver,” political consultant Yevgeny Minchenko told The Moscow Times.
“The timing was the surprise factor here, not the substance,” Ekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political analyst, told Foreign Policy. “Uncertainty can be an advantage for some leaders dealing with succession, but also a risk. This might mean that intra-elite infighting was heating up so much that they needed to eliminate the uncertainty.”
Convoluted concept
If Mr. Putin is making a power grab, then it is decidedly convoluted.
He proposed giving the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, the power to choose the prime minister, as well as confirm Cabinet ministers. The president currently makes such appointments, and political parties under Mr. Putin have been notoriously weak power centers.
“This will increase the role of parliament and parliamentary parties, as well as the powers and independence of the prime minister and all Cabinet members,” Mr. Putin said.
At the same time, however, Mr. Putin said Russia “should remain a strong presidential republic” and that the president would retain the power to appoint key security officials — but only after discussions with lawmakers from the Federation Council, the parliament’s upper house.
“These amendments, when they are adopted … will make significant changes not only to a number of articles of the constitution, but also to the balance of power,” Mr. Medvedev said. “In this context, it is obvious that we, as the government, should provide the president of our country with the ability to make all necessary decisions for this.”
Some said Mr. Putin could be preparing for the day when he no longer holds formal office but wants to keep de facto power securely in his own hands.
Kirill Rogov, a political analyst in Moscow, said the proposed constitutional amendments would allow Mr. Putin to “stay at the helm indefinitely while encouraging rivalry between potential successors.”
Mr. Putin also proposed to limit the powers of any presidential successor by closing a constitutional loophole that allows presidents to serve more than two terms, so long as they step down for at least a single term before returning to the Kremlin. Mr. Putin made use of the loophole to return to the presidency for a third term in 2012.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who is now a political analyst, raised the possibility that Mr. Putin’s decision to dismiss Mr. Medvedev may have been spontaneous.
“The fact that they did not offer us any intelligible explanation of what is happening suggests that the dismissal of the government was a surprise,” he wrote on Facebook.
His theory was backed up by The Bell, a Russian news website, which quoted an unidentified minister as saying the government received no warning that Mr. Putin was about to order its dismissal.
“This was like a bolt from the blue,” the minister said.
Some of Mr. Putin’s most vocal critics weren’t giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Alexei Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition leader, said on Twitter that the president’s speech signaled his desire to continue calling the shots even after his term ends.
“The only goal of Putin and his regime is to stay in charge for life, having the entire country as his personal asset and seizing its riches for himself and his friends,” Mr. Navalny said.
Mr. Putin began his speech by acknowledging that Russians were hungry for change after years of economic stagnation, which has left around 12% of the population — about 17.5 million people — living beneath a poverty line defined as a monthly income of $194. Russia, he added, also faces a demographic crisis unless the national birthrate rises.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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