Shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans for sweeping constitutional changes, his entire cabinet — including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — abruptly resigned.
Putin, who's been Russia’s de facto leader for nearly 20 years, is currently in the fourth term of his presidency, which is due to end in 2024. Under the proposed changes, presidential term limits would be introduced and more power would shift to the Russian legislature. Under current law, a president is limited to two consecutive terms; after Putin’s first two terms ended, he became Medvedev’s prime minister for four years, until he again ran (and won) in 2012.
In his speech, Putin called for a national referendum on the proposed reforms, according to the Financial Times. “We will be able to build a strong prosperous Russia only on the basis of respect for public opinion,” said the 67-year-old leader.
Following the speech, Medvedev and Putin’s Cabinet resigned.
"After those amendments are adopted — and it was said that this is likely to be done following discussion — there will be significant changes not only to a variety of constitution articles but also to the balance of power, namely to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of power," Medvedev said in a statement issued via Russian news agency Tass.
Saying he wanted to “provide our country’s president with an opportunity to take all the necessary decisions in these conditions,” Medvedev said the government would step down. Russian news reports said that Putin has nominated Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the Russian federal tax agency, as Medvedev’s replacement.
Although Putin has hinted at constitutional changes and the desire to keep power past his current term in office, it appears Medvedev’s resignation came as a surprise, according to the BBC and Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Medvedev’s tenure as prime minister hasn’t been without controversy. In 2017, the Russian-based Anti-Corruption Foundation released a documentary on YouTube, "He Is Not Dimon to You," that alleged Medvedev has embezzled more than $1.2 billion. The following year, the government’s plan to raise the retirement age sparked protests.
Critics of Putin’s government saw the move as a naked power grab. Alexei Navalny, a leader in the opposition to Putin, relished Medvedev’s exit. “The main result of Putin’s message: what kind of [idiots] (and/or crooks) are all those who said that Putin would leave in 2024,” Navalny said in a tweet. “Remaining the sole leader for life, taking ownership of an entire country, and appropriating wealth to himself and his friends is the only goal of Putin and his regime.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said: “A story as old as time: Russian puppet master seeks new puppets.”
Putin’s move comes after a tough year for the Russian government domestically. In early 2019, a state pollster found that while Putin’s approval rating remained high at over 60 percent, just a third of the poll’s respondents had trust in him. He’s also dealt with street protests and sluggish economic growth; in October, the Russian central bank cut its interest rate to 6.5 percent.
Although he’s no longer prime minister, Medvedev appears to be at least nominally staying in the fold; according to the BBC and other reports, Putin has asked Medvedev to become the deputy head of the Security Council. "Not everything was done, but everything never works out in full,” Putin told his ministers in a meeting, according to Tass.
Cover: Russia's President Vladimir Putin ahead of a meeting with the Russian government members, their collective resignation announced. (Photo by Dmitry Astakhov\TASS via Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.