RUSPUTINMoscow - Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual state-of-the-nation address on Wednesday to call for wide-reaching changes to the Constitution that could enable him to rule indefinitely.

Among the changes proposed by Mr. Putin were an increase in the powers of parliament and a greater role for the State Council, an advisory body to the Kremlin.

“We need a referendum on the entire package of amendments to the Constitution,” Mr Putin told lawmakers from both the upper and lower houses of parliament. He gave no indication of when the referendum, Russia’s first since 1993, would take place.

Mr Putin’s announcement was followed swiftly by the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his entire government, a development that came as a major surprise. Mr. Putin named Mikhail Mishustin, the little-known head of the tax service, as Mr. Medvedev’s successor. Mr. Mishustin was so obscure before his shock nomination that he did not even have an English-language Wikipedia page and Russians expressed bemusement at his unexpected rise to power. “Mishustin has always been in the shadows,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the R-Politik political analysis firm

Mr. Medvedev, who had been in office since 2012, said he and his ministers were stepping down to smooth the way for Mr. Putin’s proposed amendments to the Constitution. It was unclear how Mr. Medvedev’s “resignation,” which is believed to have been ordered by Kremlin officials, would make Mr. Putin’s task easier.

Mr. Putin., an ex-KGB officer who marked the 20th anniversary of his ascent to power on New Year’s Eve, is due to step down in 2024, when his final presidential term expires. Only Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, has ruled Russia for longer.

Few in Moscow expect Mr Putin to relinquish power, however, and there has been widespread speculation about how he might seek to prolong his rule. Among the possible scenarios that have been mentioned are a shift to the role of prime minister – a position Mr. Putin held from 2008 to 2012 – or ruling as head of a revamped State Council.

Mr. Putin proposed giving parliament the power to choose the prime minister, as well as confirm cabinet ministers. The president currently makes such appointments.

“This will increase the role of parliament and parliamentary parties, as well as the powers and independence of the prime minister and all cabinet members,” Mr. Putin said.

He also said, however, that Russia “should remain a strong presidential republic” and that the president should retain the power to appoint key security officials, but only after discussions with senators.

“These amendments, when they are adopted ... will make significant changes not only to a number of articles of the Constitution, but also to the balance of power,” Mr. Medvedev said. “In this context, it is obvious that we, as the government, should provide the president of our country with the ability to make all necessary decisions for this.”

Kirill Rogov, a political analyst in Moscow, said the proposed changes to the constitution would allow Mr Putin to “stay at the helm indefinitely while encouraging rivalry between potential successors.”

Mr. Putin also proposed to limit the powers of any presidential successors by closing a constitutional loophole that allows presidents to serve more than two terms, as long as they step down for at least a single term before returning to the Kremlin. Mr. Putin made use of the loophole to return to the presidency for a third term in 2012.

“It’s clear to everyone that this is all done exclusively to ensure Putin’s lifetime rule,” said Leonid Volkov, a prominent Kremlin critic.

Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who is now a political analyst, raised the possibility that Mr. Putin’s decision to dismiss Mr Medvedev may have been taken spontaneously.

“The fact that they did not offer us any intelligible explanation of what is happening suggests that the dismissal of the government was a surprise,” he wrote on Facebook.

It was a theory backed up by The Bell, a Russian news website, which quoted an unnamed minister as saying that the government had received no warning that Mr. Putin was about to order its dismissal. “This was like a bolt from the blue,” the minister said.

Mr. Putin began his speech by admitting that Russians were hungry for change after years of economic stagnation that has left around 12 per cent of the population — about 17.5 million people – living beneath a poverty line defined as a monthly income of just $194.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin called for wide-reaching changes to the Constitution that could enable him to rule indefinitely.

Story/photo published date: 01/15/20

A version of this story was publishe in The Washington Times.