ALMATY -- The recent resignation of the Russian cabinet and suggested constitutional reforms announced by President Vladimir Putin have provoked scepticism among Central Asian analysts and ordinary citizens who are convinced that the real goal of Putin is to retain power.
Putin, in his January 15 address to the Federal Assembly (parliament), announced coming changes in the country's political system. He proposed changing the constitution and holding a popular vote on the relevant amendments.
That plebiscite is expected at some point before May 1, according to the Russian press.
One of Putin's key initiatives is to redistribute powers in the government, namely, to transfer the right to appoint the prime minister and members of the cabinet from the president to the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament.
In addition, the Federation Council, the upper chamber, should gain the power to dismiss judges, said Putin.
On the same day, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced the resignation of the cabinet, including himself.
Justifying this decision, Medvedev noted that "these changes, when they are adopted, will make significant changes ... to the balance of power, executive power, judicial power", so "we, as the government of the Russian Federation, must give our country's president the ability to make all necessary decisions".
Putin appointed the former director of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin, who held his previous post for 10 years, to replace Medvedev.
Medvedev became deputy chairman of the country's Security Council, a position that Putin created for him.
The true motive for 'democratic' reforms
While anonymous sources close to the Russian government admitted that the president's initiative was "a complete surprise", analysts in Central Asia suggested that it was nothing more than a script to maintain Putin's power, whose term ends in 2024.
Constitutional reform providing for the decentralisation of power, ostensibly "for the democratic development of the state", has already been used by leaders of Eurasian countries to maintain de facto power even after leaving the presidency, said Nur-Sultan-based international relations specialist Ruslan Nazarov.
"Putin has learned from the transfer of power in Central Asia countries -- Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- and intends to implement his own plan adapted to Russian realities," Nazarov said.
Putin is weakening the president's role not to balance Russia's power system but rather to control his successor, whose influence will be significantly curtailed, he said.
"It is not yet clear in what capacity Putin will influence the decisions of the next president, but given that he is appointing Medvedev to the Security Council's leadership, the Russian leader probably considers the Security Council a future constitutional body that he will lead after his presidential term ends, and Medvedev's role may be to prepare the [groundwork]," Nazarov said.
In the past, Putin switched posts with Medvedev to bypass the constitutional restrictions prohibiting him from holding the presidency for more than two consecutive terms.
In the spring of 2008, the candidate backed by Putin -- his old colleague Medvedev -- won the presidential election.
Medvedev resigned from the presidency upon the expiration of his term in 2012, and Putin took up the post again. Having pushed through the extension of the Russian presidential term to six years and having won re-election in 2018, Putin can remain president until 2024.
However, switching roles is not the best solution this time to Putin's dilemma on how to stay in power because of Russians' declining living standards and increasing disgruntlement in society, said Almaty-based political analyst Islam Kurayev.
"As for the cabinet's resignation, it's more likely for appearance -- to show the public that changes are taking place in the country," Kurayev said.
Central Asians remain skeptical
Ordinary citizens in Central Asian countries remain sceptical regarding the intent of the planned constitutional reforms.
In Kyrgyzstan, the constitution was changed 10 times: five times under the first president, Askar Akayev, who near the end of his term also announced the need to decentralise and balance powers. Askayev was president from 1990 to 2005.
However, as a result of mass protests that saw clashes between police and demonstrators -- and the demonstrators' seizure of the presidential palace -- Akayev fled to Russia in March 2005.
"We are already savvy about so-called constitutional reforms and why they are being done, and it's definitely not to democratise the political system," said Ulan Boronbayev, a former activist of the Bishkek-based youth movement KelKel.
"There is no doubt that Putin dreamed up this scheme to maintain his power, and now he is deceiving his people under the guise of democratic changes in the country," he said.