Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Picture: REUTERS
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Picture: REUTERS

Moscow — Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has resigned and says President Vladimir Putin will choose a new government, hours after the Kremlin leader called for a series of constitutional changes in his annual address.

Medvedev, who became premier in 2012 after stepping down as president to make way for Putin’s return to the Kremlin, will take up a new post as deputy chair of the security council, the Kremlin said. He answers to Putin, who chairs the body as president.

The surprise announcement came just hours after Putin gave his annual state of the nation address, pledging as he has in past years to boost living standards and economic growth. Russia has struggled to improve performance on those in recent years amid low oil prices and Western sanctions.

Medvedev’s government has long been criticised for inefficiency and his popularity ratings lag those of the president.

The two men appeared on state television in a choreographed announcement to tell ministers of Medvedev’s departure and the resignation of the government. The reforms set out by Putin will mean “fundamental changes” to the constitution, Medvedev said.

“In these circumstances, I think it would be right for the government to resign,” Medvedev said. Putin said the government had not fulfilled all of its tasks, though he thanked it for its work.

The rouble fell as much as 0.6% against the dollar on the news, before paring its loss to 0.3% at 61.62/$ at 4.54pm in Moscow.

Medvedev served four years as president from 2008 when Putin left the Kremlin to comply with constitutional term limits. Seen initially as a standard-bearer for liberal reform, he surrendered the presidency back to Putin at the end of his first term after they disclosed at a September 2011 congress of the ruling United Russia party that the job-swap had been agreed on years earlier.

He’s been among Putin’s closest political allies since they worked together in St Petersburg city council in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Constitutional changes

Putin outlined a raft of proposed constitutional changes aimed at strengthening the powers of the parliament and other government bodies, fuelling speculation that he’s laying the groundwork for keeping power beyond the end of his current term in 2024.

The shifts could reduce the sweeping powers currently held by the president, potentially making the parliament and the state council more influential.

“These are very serious changes to the political system,” Putin said.

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.

“Putin is making proposals related to the power transition,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “Russia is now a super-presidential republic and the transformation could be towards just a presidential republic, where the powers of the head of state will be more limited by the parliament.”

“What place Putin will take, what the format of the transition will be isn’t clear,” he added.

In addition, 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 referendum would be the first on such changes in Russia since 1993. It could come as early as 2020, 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.

With Henry Meyer and Jake Rudnitsky

Bloomberg