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Russia's Government Resigns: What Does it Mean?: Background information when reading Between Two Fires

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Between Two Fires

Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin's Russia

by Joshua Yaffa

Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa X
Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2020, 368 pages

    May 2021, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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Russia's Government Resigns: What Does it Mean?

This article relates to Between Two Fires

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Vladimir Putin and Dmitry MedvedevOn January 15, 2020, Vladimir Putin proposed constitutional changes that would diminish the power of future Russian presidents. Notably, the change would also increase his ability to control Russia from behind the scenes when term limits force him to step down in 2024, when he will be 71.

A little context. Before becoming the most powerful individual in Russia, Vladimir Putin was a little known FSB (formerly KGB) agent. Out of the blue, in August 1999, Russian President Boris Yelstin orchestrated the resignation of his prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, and hand-picked Putin to replace him. Then, in an extraordinary move five months later, Boris Yelstin resigned as Russian president and anointed Vladimir Putin as his chosen successor.

Fast forward 20 years, and Putin remains President. (There was a four-year respite from 2008-2012 when, due to constitutional term limits, Putin swapped roles with then prime minister, Dimitry Medvedev. It is widely speculated that Medvedev was a lame duck, with Putin making all the major decisions behind the scenes. Putin ran for president again after Medvedev's single term and won.)

Putin remains widely popular throughout Russia, with a current approval rating over 60%. Though there is a parliament (the Duma), he runs Russia as he chooses, with the Duma and courts acting as rubber stamps for his decisions.

Putin has consolidated his authority via three tools: the media (which is now almost entirely state controlled); the Orthodox Church (with which he has established a close partnership); and the economy, which in recent years has been a weak spot due to sanctions and a massive fall in the price of oil. Paranoid of foreign influence, he has effectively banned all foreign NGOs and media, or made it exceedingly difficult for them to operate within Russia.

The cult of personality around Putin has been groomed over the past 20 years. Though his reputation benefits from his control of the media (recall the many topless pics of him hunting and traipsing through the wilderness), Putin is also popular for more tangible reasons. His early tenure coincided with massive economic growth and the end of the protracted Second Chechen War. Once his economy was secure, he invaded Georgia (in 2008) and annexed its northern territories. Seeing little to no repercussions, he invaded and annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine (2014). Following that, he began waging a guerrilla war in eastern Ukraine (ongoing). Through economic and then military success, Putin's ascension is inextricably linked in Russians' minds with the country's rebirth from the ashes of the Soviet Union.

Unlike many of the world's most famous strong-arm leaders, Putin is a technocrat. He follows constitutional laws. When the law does not favor his position, he figures out how to change the law, often by simply asking the Duma. They have never failed to comply. And so, on January 15, 2020, during his annual broadcast to the nation, Putin proposed constitutional changes that would diminish the power of future presidents.

As currently written, the Russian Constitution places an inordinate amount of power in the president's hands. Not only will the Duma now have the power to approve presidential cabinet selections — which it currently does not — but the executive branch will be split into two joint powers – the presidency and the State Council.

The president will still have much authority, but the State Council will lurk in the background. It will also be written into the Constitution, fundamentally changing the political system. In typical Russian political fashion, the State Council's role is largely undefined. Unsurprisingly, the head of the Council is…Vladimir Putin.

Immediately after Putin announced his proposed changes, Russia's prime minister (Dimitry Medvedev) announced his and his cabinet's resignations. Pundits are still trying to determine why Putin suddenly forced his prime minister and long-time ally out of power. Several hypotheses have emerged.

The first is that Putin is preparing to retain control over the country while relinquishing the spotlight. In keeping with his modus operandi as a technocrat, he is reinventing the rules to meet his aims. This new shadow council will allow him to retain power without the day-to-day grind of the presidency.

Another, parallel line of thought is that Putin is worried about his legacy. He is revered in Russia for restoring the country's economy and putting it on the world stage again — perhaps not as a superpower but as a geopolitical player. Russia's economy (which, in terms of GDP, is currently smaller than Texas's) has the potential to be one of the world's strongest, but it suffers from several structural shortcomings. First, when the state privatized most of its industries, they sold them to a small group that wields extraordinary power over the economy. Second, the state does not protect property rights well and corruption is rife. When business owners cross Putin, or are deemed a threat, they are often arrested and imprisoned on spurious charges. Third, its economy depends on commodity exports (oil, natural gas, steel and aluminum) and commodities are prone to booms and busts. Putin's next choreographed move, after Medvedev's shocking resignation, was to announce that he supported the largely unknown Mikhail Mishustin as the next prime minister. Few people outside of government have heard of Mishustin, as he is merely the head of Russia's tax service. (Kudos to those of you who can name the head of the IRS or the tax organization in your respective country!)

A second hypothesis is that by replacing an unpopular prime minister (Medvedev's approval ratings were under 40%) with an economic expert, Putin may be hoping the economy rebounds out of its decade of stagnation (due to sanctions and low oil prices). This would secure his place in Russian history books.

Showing just how much power Putin has, the Duma voted unanimously to confirm Mishustin's nomination less than 24 hours after Medvedev's resignation (January 16). It is the first time since 1996 the Duma voted unanimously for a prime minister — even Putin failed to receive a unanimous vote in 1999. From relative obscurity to prime minister in 24 hours? Many believe Putin is setting Mishustin up to be a puppet president in 2024.

Regardless of the reasons, it is difficult to dismiss the parallels between these events and Putin's rise to power. Twenty years to the month since Yelstin stepped down and announced Putin the heir apparent, Putin pulled a similar trick. Like Yelstin, he not only announced drastic changes, but named someone few had heard of to a position of power.

Russians are likely not overwhelmingly shocked by these changes. In most countries, the stock market would plummet during such unconventional transitions. Russia's markets dropped briefly but then shot up higher the next day. As Joshua Yaffa demonstrates in Between Two Fires, such changes are the norm in Russia. People either adapt quickly or brace for the potential scourge of state violence.

[Editor's Note: This Beyond the Book article originally ran in our January 22, 2020 issue for the book's hardcover release; it is running again here as the book releases in paperback.]

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, courtesy of the Kremlin Presidential Press & Information Office

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Ian Muehlenhaus

This "beyond the book article" relates to Between Two Fires. It originally ran in January 2020 and has been updated for the May 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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