President Vladimir Putin’s surprise plans to change the constitution will all but guarantee his iron grip over Russia.
Hardly anyone saw it coming – not even ministers in the Russian government.
While the details are still murky, one thing is clear: Mr Putin is set to continue ruling long after he is forced to step down as president in 2024.
During his speech to parliament in Moscow on Wednesday, Mr Putin announced a series of sweeping constitutional changes.
The first was to reduce the powers of the president, so that nobody will ever be able to rule for as long as he has.
The second was a slightly strengthened parliament, or ‘duma’. As it stands, Russia’s constitution allows Mr Putin to name the country’s prime minister and cabinet members, but he wants parliament’s lower house to make those leadership decisions in the future.
At face value, this amendment look promising for democracy because it would help restore the balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
The third was to beef up the power of a body called the State Council, which Mr Putin conveniently heads.
Following the announcement, Dmitry Medvedev – the Russian prime minister of eight years and loyal sidekick to Mr Putin – resigned.
The relatively unknown Tax Service chief Mikhail Mishustin – who didn’t even have an English Wikipedia page on Wednesday – was named as his replacement.
Mr Putin’s entire cabinet, which was led by Mr Medvedev, quit shortly after.
But despite the president’s brutal blindside, there doesn’t appear to be any bad blood between them.
On Russian state television, Mr Medvedev said he hoped his decision to step down as prime minister would clear the way for Mr Putin’s changes to pass.
So what’s going to happen now?
The Russian people will vote on Mr Putin’s proposed constitutional amendments in a national referendum, likely before May 1.
But given the Russian government’s long history of corruption, fake elections, media suppression and jailing of its critics, it is almost certain the changes will pass.
Once that happens, a new balance of power will be established just in time for the next president to take over.
Those who hoped the end of Mr Putin’s presidency would usher in a new direction for Russia are doomed to be disappointed.
Mr Putin will still keep pulling the puppet strings. The only difference is he’ll be doing it in another role that will be just as powerful as his current position as president.
Russian politics expert Dr Leonid Petrov, from the Australian National University, said Mr Putin will likely remain chairman of the soon-to-be-strengthened State Council when he steps down from the presidency.
“That way, he will be able to stay in power indefinitely because the constitution doesn’t say how long the chairman of the State Council can be there,” Dr Petrov told The New Daily.
“He’s not interested in presidency anymore, he doesn’t want to be the prime minister – he wants to be the national leader.”
Mr Putin has been in power for 20 years – which is longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader since Josef Stalin, who led from 1924 until his death in 1953.
Under Putin’s dictatorship in all but name, democratic freedoms in Russia have been squashed into virtual non-existence. Peaceful protests are met with brutal violence from riot police, journalists are locked up for reporting the truth, and internet access is becoming increasingly restricted.
There is no such thing as an independent court, nor honest debate in parliament.
“Putin has supreme power in Russia. He’s the new Czar,” Dr Petrov said.
“It’s all a charade to change the government without really changing anything.”
Dr John Besemeres, who specialises in European and Russian politics at the Australian National University, said Mr Putin would continue to use his power to manipulate world leaders, including US President Donald Trump.
“This whole system is one that has long tentacles, and is extended to foreign countries in very dangerous ways,” Dr Besemeres told The New Daily.
“It appears Trump has a very ambiguous relationship with Putin, and now that (French President Emmanuel) Macron and (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel can’t rely on the US for security in present circumstances, they are trying to cultivate good relations with Putin instead.”