Putin moves the first chess piece in what many see as a grand power-grab strategy

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the na
Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address in Moscow on Wednesday. Copyright Maxim Shemetov
Copyright Maxim Shemetov
By Yuliya Talmazan and Alexander Smith and Tatyana Chistikova with NBC News World News
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"It is hard to see this as anything other than a ploy to remain in control beyond 2024," one expert said.


President Vladimir Putin's latest move promises to be one of the biggest shake-ups of Russian politics since his predecessor Boris Yeltsin sent tanks to shell Parliament in 1993 while his opponents were barricaded inside.The revolution proposed by Putin may not be a bloody one, but it does suggest an overhaul of Russia's Constitution with far-reaching consequences.Though this grand plan is still playing out, many observers say Putin appears to be attempting to use this makeover to dramatically prolong his political lifespan and grip on power.During a speech in Moscow, the former KGB officer proposed plans to weaken his presidential successor and transfer that power elsewhere in the government. It would carve out a new role outside the presidency, perhaps ready for Putin, 67, to step into once his fourth term ends in 2024.For the West, it raises the prospect that his influence will continue — meddling in elections around the world, annexing neighbors' land, and brutally cracking down on democratic opposition at home — potentially for decades to come."It is hard to see this as anything other than a ploy to remain in control beyond 2024," said Valeriy Akimenko, a senior research associate at the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a research and consultancy group in England. "We simply don't know the whole story - or the whole plan. Possibilities range from the tried and tested to the relatively novel."

Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address in Moscow on Wednesday.
Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address in Moscow on Wednesday.Maxim Shemetov

Many had predicted Putin would try to extend his power beyond its constitutional limits. His 20 years in power, switching between the presidency and prime ministership, already constitute the longest reign since that of Joseph Stalin, who died in 1953.This week Putin made his opening chess move, announcing what his opponents and many independent experts characterized as the first stages of a power grab. Leonid Volkov, an opposition politician and a close ally of arch Putin critic Alexei Navalny, went so far as to call it a "constitutional coup."Putin proposed giving far more power to the country's parliament and the State Council, stripping the presidency of the power that he has wielded with such singular might.Meanwhile, his loyal prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, announced he was resigning along with the rest of the government. He was replaced Thursday by a relatively unknown technocrat, Mikhail Mishustin, lauded for his work modernizing Russia's tax office but not seen as a serious political contender in the long run.Although appearing to strengthen the separation of powers to a level not recently seen in Russia, there are several ways these maneuvers might benefit Putin's long-term plans.Some experts have predicted he may leave behind the weakened presidential office and shift to a role leading a newly emboldened State Council, an advisory body that would enjoy enlarged powers under Putin's proposals.This would mirror the path of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's former president who last year stepped down after more than 30 years but remained "leader of the nation" and chairman of its powerful security council.Others predicted Putin might seek an umbrella role governing a new union between Russia and its former Soviet neighbor of Belarus, although this has so far been resisted by that country's leader, Alexander Lukashenko."I would say foreign policy is the one thing where we will keep seeing Putin in the future," said Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, adding that it interested the Russian leader a lot more than the nitty-gritty of his homeland's economics.Born in 1952 in Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, Putin grew up in the former Soviet Union, a superpower that occupied nearly one sixth of the world's landmass.He was an officer in the secret police and intelligence agency KGB, posted to then- East Germany in the 1980s, later recalling the deep, personal anguish at seeing firsthand his homeland breaking apart. Once in office, he made restoring this perceived former greatness a cornerstone message.

Putin, center, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, center left, attend a cabinet meeting in Moscow on Wednesday.
Putin, center, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, center left, attend a cabinet meeting in Moscow on Wednesday.Dmitry Astakhov

"Russia has been a great power for centuries," he told lawmakers at his confirmation as prime minister in 1999. "We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored."But over his political reign, that's meant Russia increasing its "anti-Western propaganda and aggressive international behavior," Akimenko at the Conflict Studies Research Centre said. If Putin were to step into a new role, "it is hard to imagine that after more than a decade in progress, this trend would suddenly be reversed," Akimenko added.Despite his global influence, Putin is having to tread carefully. His popularity skyrocketed in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea, but has since dipped after a change to the retirement -age sparked mass protests.Meanwhile, the economy struggled in part due to foreign sanctions imposed after the Crimea annexation, U.S. election meddling, and the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet by a Russian missile system.Under Putin, Russia has become less democratic and more authoritarian, now ranked among the most repressive countries in the world according to an annual report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research group, which has offices based around the world.Russians have increasingly taken to the streets over a host of social issues this year, prompting harsh crackdowns by the Kremlin.Nevertheless, Putin appears eager to give his plans the air of legitimacy by suggesting they should be approved by a popular vote, according to Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at the London think tank Chatham House."Legitimacy issue is very important in this regard," Petrov said. "It looks like Putin has been unable to fix this by using foreign policy and military successes and is switching back to electoral legitimacy."The current rules mean he would have to take a break until 2030 before running for president again, something he ruled out last year: "Will I be doing this until I am 100 years old? No."At least on the surface, Putin's gambit has been welcomed by Russia's political elites over whom the president continues to exert tremendous influence. It was deemed a "necessary change of course" and "long overdue" by several political parties that technically represent the opposition but in reality often side with the Kremlin.Whatever his future role, Putin's plans would mean his successor will not have nearly the same clout. Future presidents would only be able to serve two terms total (Putin is in his fourth), they must have lived in Russia for 25 consecutive years, up from the current 10, and they cannot have ever had foreign citizenship or even a residence permit in another country.And it's possible that these greater checks on the presidency will have the byproduct of "strengthening institutions and creating a system of quasi checks and balances," according to Petrov.But it would also rule out opponents such as Navalny, perhaps Putin's most prominent critic who left Russia to study at Yale University in 2010, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled former oligarch who had in the past been granted temporary Swiss residency.In all, the proposals would mean that "there can be no second Putin," Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, tweeted.

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