Russia ~ of all nations ~ is today without a government. In his anxiety to entrench his authority further still, President Vladimir Putin has signalled his intent to effect a sweeping reshuffle of the hierarchy. This is at the core of Wednesday’s annual address to the Federal Assembly, one that has been greeted with the almost immediate resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and his cabinet.

Medvedev has been appointed to a new position as the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, which is headed by Putin. Overall, it has been a cautiously calibrated initiative, considering that the tenure of Putin’s presidency is scheduled to end in 2024. Towards that end, he has proposed constitutional amendments that will enable him to hold onto power even after leaving the presidency.

The government’s resignation, in itself a dramatic development, comes in response to his plans to stay on in power beyond 2024. Notably, Putin has accepted Medvedev’s resignation ahead of a possible referendum on constitutional changes. To the extent that the people’s vote will be crucial in the overall construct, the democratic certitudes will hopefully be upheld in what was till three decades ago a primary bastion of Communist authority.

The last referendum was held in 1993 to ratify the Constitution of Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor. While the proposed shake-up has sent shock-waves through Russia’s political elite, there is speculation in Moscow over the nature of future cabinet appointments. The President is paving the way towards a dramatic change in governance as he prepares for a transition four years from now. Even if he leaves or “abandons” the office of President, he will remain Russia’s dominant politician.

Now 67, Putin has ruled Russia since 2000, making him the longest-serving leader since Stalin. That doesn’t quite posit him on the same pedestal as Josep Stalin in the stirring history of Russia, however. The most important political question today is what he plans to do in 2024. Suffice it to register that current trends do suggest that he will continue to function as the nation’s omnipotent leader.

In a televised presentation before senior officials, Putin suggested that the Constitution be amended to limit a future President to two terms in office, whereas he has served four. The amendments will also seek to tighten residency requirements for presidential candidates. Parliament will be empowered to choose candidates for Prime Minister and the cabinet, the fineprint being that greater authority will vest in the legislature. Apart from constitutional amendments, Wednesday’s speech was riveted to the themes of poverty and social support, with Putin promising additional support for families with children, in an effort to raise the country’s birth rate and higher pensions. He is acutely aware that indices of social welfare are crucial in any referendum ~ from the United Kingdom to Russia.