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News 17 January 2020, at 16:59

How an obscure taxman just became Putin’s No. 2.

Marime Font

 When Russians woke up on Wednesday morning, most had likely never heard of Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the country’s tax service. But by the time they went to bed that night, Mishustin had been named as Russia’s new prime minister after a day that included a flurry of proposed changes to the constitution and a series of dramatic shake-ups that saw the government resign en masse. It was the first real inkling of the power transfer to come, with President Vladimir Putin set to reach his constitutionally imposed term limit in 2024.

 During his annual State of the Nation Address, Putin, who is on his fourth and technically final term as president, announced sweeping constitutional reforms that would redistribute some of the powers of the position to the parliament and State Council. Should Putin head the newly empowered State Council after stepping down, as some analysts expect, he could wield significant influence over whoever succeeds him as president.

The resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the announcement about Mishustin, a technocrat with little power base of his own, caught many analysts and Kremlin watchers by surprise. The 53-year-old bureaucrat became Russia’s newly appointed prime minister and Putin’s second-in-command as the country slowly enters a new period of political transition.

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Who is Mishustin?

It is unclear whether Mishustin is a temporary placeholder or could be groomed as a potential successor down the line. A largely anonymous figure, Mishustin enjoys a reputation in Russia’s business circles as one of the country’s most effective technocrats and earned rave reviews as the head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service. During his tenure, he helped modernize Russia’s notoriously inefficient and corrupt tax system, earning him the moniker “the taxman of the future” in a 2019 Financial Times profile.

Like Putin, the new prime minister is a hockey fan and has been seen at matches with security services officials in Moscow. According to Bloomberg, Mishustin developed a relationship with Putin as a member of the president’s Night Hockey League, and he is also a member of the board of Russia’s Ice Hockey Federation. Mishustin is reportedly an enthusiastic composer who has written a number of songs for well-known Russian singers, according to the Russian financial newspaper Vedomosti.

Married with three sons, Mishustin has few political accolades and worked in government roles related to tax collection since the early days of his career. Gennady Gudkov, a former opposition lawmaker, called the new prime minister “a new faceless functionary without ambition,” while Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Putin advisor, told the Russian news agency Interfax that Mishustin is “a splendid bureaucrat, in the best sense of the word.”

Why was he chosen?

While Putin’s selection of a relative unknown with no political base of his own caught many observers off guard, the desire to elevate someone who won’t erode the president’s own authority fits with Putin’s other moves on Wednesday to eliminate obstacles on the road to 2024.

Mishustin appears well suited to deliver as prime minister where Medvedev failed, especially in terms of implementing the Kremlin’s so-called national projects: a massive public spending and infrastructure plan of $400 billion that was put forward by Putin after his reelection in 2018. While reducing poverty, economic expansion, and increasing population growth were central to his last presidential campaign, the government has so far failed to properly implement those measures. By appointing Mishustin, Putin is hoping that his new prime minister can live up to his reputation and wrestle Russia’s bureaucracy into delivering results on the national projects.

Unlike other elites who may be looking to enshrine their own power base and promote their own ambitions during the political transition, Mishustin remains an inoffensive choice whom Putin is relying on to deliver economic progress and focus on the day-to-day work of turning the president’s proclamations into reality.

Where does he fit into Putin’s plan?

By selecting Mishustin, Putin is looking to learn from his past mistakes during his return to the presidency in 2012 and offer Russians change, while still maintaining his grip on power. Much of Putin’s State of the Nation speech on Wednesday focused on promises and measures to improve the lives of everyday Russians, and his choice of Mishustin as prime minister reflects the Kremlin’s concerns about declining standards of living in the country and negative public opinion toward the government.

The booming oil prices and rising incomes that helped propel Putin’s popularity in the early days of his presidency have largely passed. Disposable incomes in Russia are still effectively below what they were in 2013, and the combination of Western sanctions and lower oil prices have helped dim the country’s economic prospects. Malaise and backlash against the government have also grown. Last year saw the most sustained street protests in the country since demonstrations against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2011 and 2012. Polls have also shown that the public is growing distrustful of state television channels, and Putin has seen his popularity fall to 68 percent from 82 percent in April 2018, according to the Levada Center, an independent pollster based in Moscow. Medvedev, meanwhile, leaves his post as prime minister with a dismal 38 percent rating, according to the same poll.

Through his low profile and experience with the country’s vast and cumbersome bureaucracy, Mishustin is now positioned to enact unfulfilled government policies and help quell socioeconomic discontent as Putin’s slow-motion power transfer winds toward 2024. Putin is betting that Mishustin’s pedigree of efficiency will help him deliver on policies and limit public dissatisfaction—thereby providing the smoothest transition for the Russian leader.

As Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote, Putin is relying on Mishustin to modernize the Russian economy by building “a country that resembles the Federal Tax Service: with reports and inspections, security assets, and—where necessary—the digitalization of the entire country.”

What happens to Medvedev?

As part of yesterday’s shake-up, Prime Minister Medvedev resigned, leading his entire cabinet to stand down too. Medvedev served as president from 2008 to 2012, although he was largely regarded to be just keeping the seat warm for Putin’s return in 2012. U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 said that Medvedev “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.” With Medvedev now set to become deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, he will continue to sit under Putin, who leads the body.

A former law professor with a penchant for new technology, Medvedev sparked hopes of liberalization with his ascendancy to the presidency in 2008, but the few gains he made were largely rolled back when Putin returned to the throne.

Medvedev’s image has also taken a battering in recent years as he has been used as a scapegoat for unpopular government decisions and been the target of investigations led by the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, which sparked street protests across the country in 2017. As news broke on Wednesday of Medvedev’s resignation, an investigator at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation tweeted, “Dimon, where are you going, we weren’t finished with you yet,” using a diminutive form of Medvedev’s first name.

https://foreignpolicy.com 

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