Putin Surprises Opponents With Cabinet And Constitutional Changes

Jan 27, 2020
Originally published on January 27, 2020 8:04 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After 20 years in power, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has not run out of tricks. In the space of a week, Putin fired his cabinet, hired a new one and started pushing through sweeping constitutional changes. So what's his goal? NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

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LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: After a fanfare, President Putin got straight down to business in his State of the Nation address this month in Moscow. Speaking to more than 1,000 officials, he appropriated a slogan from the opposition and set the course for the new year.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Today, our society demands change," he said, "and it's the government's duty to listen." He then went on to propose a raft of constitutional changes that he said would secure Russia's future development. Before anybody had time to digest that news, Putin was making even more headlines.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Within hours of his speech, he fired his whole cabinet and, a little bit later, appointed the country's obscure tax chief as the new prime minister. State media heralded the dawn of a new political era. Putin caught his opponents completely off guard - like Yuliya Galyamina. I meet her in a chain restaurant near a Moscow Metro station. Galyamina says Putin has essentially carried out a coup d'etat.

YULIYA GALYAMINA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: She says Putin's constitutional changes are really all about keeping him in power after 2024, when his presidential term runs out.

GALYAMINA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: The country's leadership needs to change, she says, not the constitution. Just days after Putin's announcement, Galyamina led a small protest in downtown Moscow.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Russian).

KIM: "Russia without Putin," they shouted, holding copies of the Russian Constitution in their hands. But not everyone in the opposition agrees, and that's their problem. Putin's most prominent critic is Alexei Navalny. He says people shouldn't get distracted by the proposed amendments because the current constitution isn't worth defending.

GALYAMINA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Navalny is a populist, Galyamina says, and it's not a compliment. Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst in Moscow, says, in fact, the opposition was in a state of confusion even before Putin's big speech.

DMITRY ORESHKIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Putin's enemies don't have a clue how to respond," he says. "And they fail to come up with any serious alternatives." Oreshkin says Russia's democratic opposition is stuck in what he calls a crisis of ideas.

ORESHKIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: At the same time, he says, Putin is taking a huge risk. Oreshkin says Russians are showing an interest in politics like never before. Last summer, Putin's opposition organized the largest anti-government protest in years. Yuliya Galyamina spent a month in jail for organizing unauthorized rallies.

GALYAMINA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "A new generation of politicians," she says, "is ready to take power." While Putin's amendments may give him a new lease on life, Galyamina says, they can't boost his popularity.

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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: As for Putin, he's ignoring the squabbling opposition. At the end of his speech, he called on all Russians to work for the sake of Russia's greatness.

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KIM: His new cabinet has already been confirmed, and parliament is due to pass his constitutional amendments in February.

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KIM: Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANFARE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.