January 15, 2020 / 5:01 PM / 10 days ago

Breakingviews - Putin picks good time for Potemkin reshuffle

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to the national anthem after delivering his annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow, Russia January 15, 2020.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - After two decades in power Vladimir Putin is shaking things up – sort of. At an annual address broadcast on television screens across the country on Wednesday, the Russian president told the nation of his plans to hand more power to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. As with the fake villages erected during Catherine II’s visit to Crimea in 1787 by the Russian empress’s lover Grigory Potemkin, there’s an illusory feel to it all.

The plans, complemented by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the government’s swift resignation, are audacious. One possibility is that they will pave the way for the Russian prime minister to hold the real power in the land beyond 2024, when Putin’s second consecutive presidential term is set to end. Given that said prime minister could one day be Putin himself, it would be a way to push his tenure into a fourth decade. 

Putin’s shifts may not change the fundamentals, but their optics remain important. When he and Medvedev set out plans to switch roles ahead of the 2012 election, record numbers of Russians came out to protest. They were unimpressed by a manoeuvre which allowed Putin to come back as president for another two terms, and could be similarly irked now.

Still, it’s not a bad time for a moving of the Kremlin’s goalposts. Russia has held onto Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, and has been negotiating peace in the rest of Ukraine. Its intervention in Syria is only one way in which Russia has gained influence in the Middle East. Meanwhile a stagnating economy means Russians may in future become even less receptive to games of politico-musical chairs. And while Medvedev denies claims by opposition leader Alexei Navalny of rampant corruption, his exit allows Putin to present the image of a fresh start even if he remains in charge.

Politicking remains no substitute for real economic reform. Putin’s strongman strategy of using foreign affairs to shore up domestic support has a shelf life. Russia’s immense hydrocarbon wealth has failed to buy any major reform of healthcare or education – indeed, last year there was an unpopular extension of the retirement age. All the more reason for Putin to act now.

Breakingviews

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