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Russia's Prime Minister Resigns, And Its President Signals Constitutional Changes


Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev abruptly resigned today, along with the rest of the Cabinet. The unexpected announcement came immediately after President Vladimir Putin proposed changing the Russian constitution.


PRIME MINISTER DMITRY MEDVEDEV: (Through interpreter) All this in itself is a serious change to the political system.

SHAPIRO: But this all may be connected to Putin's attempts to stay in power at the end of his current term in 2024. We're joined by reporter Charles Maynes in Moscow. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: Help us understand what happened today. Did Medvedev and the rest of the Cabinet jump or were they pushed?

MAYNES: Well, it's maybe a little bit of both. You know, Putin, as you noted, held his annual speech to the Federal Assembly. It's kind of like State of the Nation speech. And it mostly focused on domestic issues when it took this turn at the end. So you had Putin talking about taking power away from the presidency and moving it towards the Parliament, specifically giving the Parliament power to choose the prime minister post and create a newly strengthened independent Security Council. Now, why would Putin do this? Well, it appears part of this effort to recast himself in some new role once his fourth and final term of office ends in 2024. Medvedev then resigned just hours later, saying, in effect, these new shifting constitutional reforms meant that Putin should have basically maximum flexibility to make good on his plans. But, you know, before we could even begin to guess who was his replacement, Putin named him. It's a guy named Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the federal tax services here for the last 10 years, but really little known, even among Kremlin watchers.

SHAPIRO: Putin and Medvedev have a long history of enabling each other to hold onto power. I mean, Putin has led Russia since 1999. Remind us of the backstory between these two men.

MAYNES: Well, you know, Medvedev was in the government, but he really came on the scene as kind of a national figure here in 2008 when Medvedev and Putin were part of what became known as this kind of switcheroo in power. Putin was in his second term in office, banned from a third term consecutively. So they came up with a creative solution. Putin became prime minister. Medvedev took the presidency spot, and he kept the seat warm for four years until Putin came back in 2012.

SHAPIRO: And today, how popular is Medvedev? Has he been seen as a success during his time as prime minister?

MAYNES: No, and he's not very popular. You know, he's been the topic of an investigation by the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, on YouTube that's gotten 32 million views and led to protests, particularly by younger Russians last year. Meanwhile, the Russian government, you know, it's set up in this way that Putin gets to shake his fist at the West and play statesman, but Medvedev has really had the heavy and unpleasant, you know, job of trying to govern. So, you know - and judging by Putin's speech today, that isn't going very well. You know, Putin acknowledged problems like poverty, health care, education. And, you know, so in a way, I guess you could look at this government's dismissal today as being part of convincing the public that 20 years into his rule, Putin still has, you know, maybe not new ideas but at least new people to try and implement them.

SHAPIRO: Do there seem to be any roadblocks to Putin implementing this plan? Or can he change the constitution, reorganize the structure of power in Russia and hang on for as long as he wants to?

MAYNES: The answer is yes and yes and yes. You know, I think there is no doubt that if they want to push through these reforms, they can. The Duma here is basically a rubber stamp institution. Now, Putin did say he wants a public vote on this. It was interesting to hear him not use the word referendum because a referendum implies that you have a certain amount of people - over 50% of the population participating in the vote. I think there are already suggestions by some of the opposition leaders here that they may use e-voting in a way to massage the votes somehow to get the result that they want.

SHAPIRO: That's Charles Maynes, a reporter based in Moscow.

Thanks very much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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