(Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Putin outlined a raft of proposed constitutional changes aimed at strengthening the powers of the parliament and other government bodies, fueling speculation that he’s laying the groundwork for keeping power beyond the end of his current term in 2024.
The plans, announced unexpectedly at the end of his annual state-of-the-nation speech Wednesday, come as Putin is widely expected to seek a way to hold onto control in some form beyond the constitutional limit at the end of his current term.
Putin hasn’t commented on his plans and his proposals didn’t include any major overhauls that would have created a new post for him. But the shifts could reduce the sweeping powers currently held by the president, potentially reining in any successor while making the parliament and the State Council more influential.
“These are very serious changes to the political system,” Putin said. “Russia should remain a strong presidential republic.”
Putin devoted most of his 80-minute speech to social issues, offering new benefits to stimulate the country’s falling birth rate and reverse the decline in its population. He reiterated pledges to speed economic growth and boost incomes, but offered few new proposals.
Read more: Putin’s Russia at 20: Swagger Abroad Belies Stagnation at Home
Foreign policy got relatively little attention, in contrast to the last two years, when Putin threatened new weapons deployments to counter the U.S. and its allies.
The constitutional changes would be subject to a referendum before being approved, Putin said. They would include measures to allow the parliament greater say in approving the prime minister and cabinet officials. The State Council, now a largely ceremonial body, would get more clearly defined powers written into the constitution.
The current ban on the same person serving more than two consecutive presidential terms could be broadened to cover two terms even if they were separated in time. Putin had used that loophole to return to the presidency in 2012 after serving as prime minister, allowing him to serve a total of four presidential terms altogether.
The proposals “can be interpreted as the first step of the future transition of power,” said Evgeny Minchenko, a Moscow political consultant who works with the Kremlin. “One of the scenarios being considered is for Putin to move to another post.”
To maintain his influence with someone else in the top job, “Putin is putting in place a system to limit the powers of his successor,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of R.Politik, a political consultancy. The Russian leader could switch to a role at the head of a strengthened State Council endowed with significant new powers, she said. “Putin can use it to control all the different branches of government without having to deal with day-to-day affairs,” Stanovaya said.
Putin, though, may find that the limits he’s imposing on the next leader aren’t significant enough to give him the continued leverage he’s seeking, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who’s often critical of the authorities.
“These changes aren’t radical and won’t work,” he said. “Putin doesn’t understand that Russia will be entering a period in which he’ll be on his way out.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, said the scale of the proposed changes was greater than what had been discussed in the past. “The previous changes were small and targeted. Today, the president proposed strengthening the sovereignty of our country.”
The referendum would be the first on such changes in Russia since 1993. It could come as early as this year, according to a senior legislator cited by Interfax.
The changes also included a constitutional ban on holding foreign citizenship or residency for top officials, legislators and judges, while presidential candidates must have resided permanently in Russia for at least 25 years.
Putin started the speech with a warning that a shrinking population is a threat to Russia’s future. He outlined a series of new benefits for families aimed at stimulating them to have more children, including extending popular lump-sum payments for second children to first born.
“Russia’s fate, her historical prospects, depend on how many of us there are,” Putin said. “We have entered a very difficult demographic period,” he said, adding that low incomes are “a direct threat to our demographic future.”
Putin set a goal of raising the birthrate to 1.7 children per woman by 2024, from 1.5 last year.
In last year’s speech, Putin promised that Russians would “feel changes for the better” in the course of 2019. Real disposable incomes gained only 0.2% in the first nine months of last year, however, the latest period for which official data are available.
The address comes as Putin marks 20 years in power having restored Russia’s international influence to a level unthinkable back in 2000 when he took over a barely solvent government from President Boris Yeltsin. But his foreign-policy triumphs in the Middle East and Europe are increasingly not enough to satisfy Russians frustrated with five years of stagnant living standards amid low oil prices and Western sanctions.
--With assistance from Jake Rudnitsky, Andrey Biryukov, Evgenia Pismennaya and Stepan Kravchenko.
To contact the reporters on this story: Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at email@example.com;Henry Meyer in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory L. White at email@example.com, Tony Halpin
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