Russia’s prime minister and its entire government resigned on Wednesday as part of sweeping constitutional changes that could see President Vladimir Putin extend his hold on power.
In his annual state-of-the-nation speech, Putin said he favored changing the constitution to hand the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, the power to choose Russia’s prime minister and other key positions.
“Of course these are very serious changes to the political system,” Putin said, adding that he thought Parliament and civil society was ready for the changes.
“It would increase the role and significance of the country’s Parliament … of parliamentary parties, and the independence and responsibility of the prime minister.”
He proposed a nationwide vote on the changes.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a longtime trusted ally of Putin’s, said on Wednesday that the government he heads was resigning to give the president room to carry out changes he wants to make to the constitution.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Medvedev made the announcement on state TV, sitting next to Putin who thanked Medvedev for his work.
Russian state media TASS agency said Putin has instructed the government to perform its duties until the new cabinet is formed.
Putin, who has been in power for nearly two decades as either president or prime minister, was due to finish his fourth presidential term in 2024, after which the constitution would bar him from immediately running for president again.
But in recent months, there has been speculation in Russian media about whether Putin will attempt to stay in power beyond 2024 without changing the constitution or forming a union with friendly neighbor, Belarus.
Critics have suggested he is considering various options to remain at the helm, including by shifting power to parliament and then assuming an enhanced role as prime minister after he steps down in four years.
Another option often mentioned is his heading a State Council, a body that Putin said on Wednesday he thought should be given more powers under the constitution.
One of the most vocal opposition leaders and anti-corruption activists, Alexei Navalny, tweeted in response to Putin’s announcement: “The main point of Putin’s message: what kind of idiots (and/or crooks) are all those who said Putin will leave in 2024. Remaining a life-long only leader, taking ownership of the entire country, appropriating its wealth for himself and his friends — that is the only goal of Putin and his regime.”
Navalvny has been accusing Putin and his entourage of rampant corruption for years.
In a widely anticipated win, Putin was re-elected in 2018 with 77% of the vote.
He remains popular with many Russians, although his trust ratings have taken a beating after introduction of a very unpopular pension reform in 2018.