Maintaining the top of the Kremlin for two decades is no easy task. But Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear Wednesday that he has his eye on an even longer game.
In his annual address on the state of the nation, Putin called for radical constitutional changes that could finally consolidate his long-term control over power, a dramatic step that was quickly followed by the resignation of the prime minister and his entire government.
Analysts widely read the proposals of the Russian leader, which would include an expansion of parliamentary powers and other significant changes of authority between the branches of government, as a maneuver to ensure that Putin's influence does not end when his presidential term ends, within four years.
"Here is Putin's initial movement to remain in power after 2024: changing the constitution, which has always been the most direct path of least resistance," Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution wrote on Twitter.
Putin accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and appointed him to a newly created position: deputy head of the National Security Council, which oversees the country's powerful security apparatus. The president nominated as a replacement for Medvedev a relatively low profile bureaucrat, Mikhail Mishustin, who for the past decade has served as head of the Tax Service.
Putin previously made Medvedev, 54, his partner in a country of deux that allowed the Russian leader to maintain his authority against the limits of the mandate or other limitations. In 2008, Putin returned to the prime minister, with Medvedev elected as president, but Putin continued to exercise royal authority. Then, when they exchanged jobs again in 2012, power again flowed to Putin.
Many observers considered the effects of Wednesday's shake as long-range, but also somewhat hazy, at least for now.
Sam Greene, who heads the Russian Institute at King’s College in London, called it an “exercise to keep all options open” for the Russian leader.
"The debate about the constitution will almost inevitably become a debate about Putin," he wrote in a post on his blog in Moscow on the Thames. "Institutions, roles and provisions shall be defined taking into account a particular occupant."
But few believe that Putin, 67, a cunning KGB official who has been in power for two decades, would be put aside or his powers diminished prematurely. What is not clear is exactly how you will make sure that does not happen.
"The million dollar question is what has led him to do this and how he creates a position to extend his government," said William E. Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a group of Washington experts.
The president's actions, he said, show that "Putin wants to maintain control of the process, and wants to have time to implement the changes, so if something unforeseeable happens, he still has time to fix it."
The high-level changes came hours after Putin made the annual address to his cabinet ministers, members of the Russian parliament and regional leaders, a long and often sleepy issue that drew much attention this year.
The broad changes described by Putin would give the State Duma, or parliament, the right to appoint prime ministers and cabinet members. Currently, the Russian president appoints the prime minister and his cabinet, while the Duma votes if he approves them.
The Russian leader also asked to expand the powers of a relatively obscure advisory body called the State Council, headed by Putin. Some analysts suggested that it could make that a new power base once it is out of office, a maneuver similar to that of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev resigned last year as president, but remained head of the Security Council, which allowed him to retain authority in a different capacity.
Putin promised to put the proposed changes to a popular vote, which he said would be "key to the progressive development of society."
The Russian Constitution restricts presidents to two consecutive terms. Putin's comments largely ended the rumors that arose last month during his annual marathon press conference when he suggested that the wording in the constitution, in which the president limits himself to fulfilling two "followed" terms, could be changed.
With Wednesday's proposals, Putin released his version of the transition of power, said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, a group of experts in Moscow. It also gives the Russian leader the ability to signal upcoming reforms to calm public signs of discontent, he said.
"The Medvedev government was unpopular due to pension reform and a stagnant economy," Makarkin said. "Putin has an estimate that the new government will become popular." That in turn would give the Kremlin the opportunity to present a popular but malleable prime minister as a presidential candidate later.
Putin's proposal to change power comes after a series of major anti-government protests during the summer in Moscow and other cities. The protesters opposed the refusal of the Central Election Commission to register opposition candidates in the September regional elections, especially in the Moscow city council.
Police arrested and beat thousands of protesters. Subsequently, Russian courts sentenced some 20 protesters to jail for mass riots and other charges.
The protests showed growing frustrations in Russia over the lack of tolerance for political expression and accusations of government corruption. Russia's economy has stagnated due to lower world oil prices and the impact of Western sanctions imposed after the Kremlin annexed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine in 2014. The Russians are feeling economic pressure as it increases inflation and decrease real income.
"It seems that Putin is preparing to leave the presidency (either in 2024 or even earlier), and is currently trying to create a security mechanism for his successor in case of conflict," Tatiana Stanovaya, analyst and Founder of the expert group R. Politik wrote on his Facebook page. "At the same time, Medvedev is getting rid of, which has become toxic to the elite and the general population, this should facilitate the transition period."
Special correspondent Ayres reported from the staff writer of Moscow and Times King of Washington.