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by John Helmer, Moscow

In law courts, justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. In politics, too.

The problem with what President Vladimir Putin (lead image, right) announced in his Federal Assembly address this week, and what he did immediately after, is that things don’t look the way he says they should.

The difference was written on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s face. He thinks Putin has destroyed the political forces of the candidate with the best chance of winning the presidential election of 2024 — himself. The businessmen and government officials who have depended on Medvedev are acknowledging this realization on the telephone.

Kremlin photograph of the meeting between President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev after the Federal Assembly speech. Posted at 1510, the Kremlin communiqué said “the discussion focused on the initiatives Vladimir Putin set out in the Address and the issues related to the implementation of its provisions.” Source:  http://en.kremlin.ru/

An hour after this picture was taken,  at a meeting with Putin of the assembled ministers at Government House (Kremlin term for White House), Medvedev announced: “as the Government of the Russian Federation we must give the President of this country an opportunity to make all the necessary decisions for this. Under the circumstances, it would be correct for the entire Government of the Russian Federation to resign in accordance with Article 117 of the Constitution.”

He looked and sounded unconvinced that his exit was “correct”.

The constitutional provision to which Medvedev referred is a notorious relic. Article 117 was created by President Boris Yeltsin after he used the military to crush parliament’s opposition in October 1993.  Several hundred people inside the White House were killed.

The new constitution was voted two months later by the disputable margin of 58% in a disputable turnout of 54%.   Article 117 then gave the president the power to block a prime minister’s resignation; veto a vote of no-confidence in the government by the State Duma;  and the power to decide whether and when to dissolve parliament and hold new elections.

In Putin’s speech on Wednesday,   he began his proposals for constitutional amendment with the announcement:  “We have overcome the situation when certain powers in the government were essentially usurped by oligarch clans.” Usurpation of power by Yeltsin at the expense of the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1993 was not explained then, nor since, by the operations of the oligarchs. They came later. In Russian public opinion, the oligarchs continue to be extra-constitutionally powerful today. The polls show Putin’s claim is not believed.

Source: Levada Centre, October 2017: https://www.levada.ru/ For analysis, read this.

The proposals Putin has announced change the balance of power between the presidency and the parliament. But they also change the balance of power between the houses of parliament, and also between the central power in Moscow and the regions. The State Duma, according to Putin, will have the new power to appoint “the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and then all deputy prime ministers and federal ministers at the Prime Minister’s recommendation. At the same time the President will have to appoint them, so he will have no right to turn down the candidates approved by the Parliament.” This implies the State Duma will be able to exercise a veto over ministers’ performance with votes of no-confidence the president cannot override. This is not yet certain.  

Also unclear is who would prevail if the president decides to dismiss the government which holds the confidence of parliament. Putin said he proposes to keep “the right to dismiss the prime minister, his deputies and federal ministers in case of improper execution of duties or due to loss of trust.” The constitution is silent on the terms, improper execution and loss of trust. They are powder the president aims to keep dry for himself.    

The Kremlin has immediately convened what it calls a “working group on drafting proposals for amendments to the Constitution”. No elected constitutional convention; no constitutional assembly provided for in Chapter 9 of the present charter; no principle of representation; no decision or voting rules for the novel body. It was hand-picked by the President’s staff — “75 politicians, legislators, scholars and public figures”. The Kremlin has published photographs, but no list of the names yet.  

Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/

The oligarch class, as Putin calls them, is represented by Alexander Shokhin (centre picture above, left); the working class – to whom no one refers – is represented by the man seated by the Kremlin next to Shokhin, Mikhail Shmakov, head of the trade union federation.

Noone in uniform is seated at the Kremlin table. The military appears to have one seat; that’s occupied by retired Army General Boris Gromov (above right), 76, now titled “Chairman of the Brothers in Arms National Veteran Public Organisation”. Gromov’s political career after the Army rules him out as representing the General Staff or the Defence Ministry.

Putin’s proposals create a fork in the balance of power by assigning domestic policy-making, including the budget, to the parliament’s appointees to government; while reserving defence, military, and security powers, and their budgets, to the executive. “The president also exercises direct command over the Armed Forces and the entire law enforcement system. In this regard, I believe another step is necessary to provide a greater balance between the branches of power. In this connection, point six: I propose that the president should appoint heads of all security agencies following consultations with the Federation Council.”

This preserves the imbalance – Putin’s terminology — let’s say concentration of policy-making and enforcement powers in the Kremlin; it also guards the incumbent president during the transition between now and 2024,  as well as afterwards. “I believe,” said Putin, “this approach will make the work of security and law enforcement agencies more transparent and accountable to citizens.” The Russian public opinion polls are very sceptical.

The first test of what this step will mean in practice will be the names of the new ministers of defence, internal affairs, foreign affairs, the Federal Security Service, the intelligence agencies, and the two state law enforcement organs, the Prosecutor-General and the Investigative Committee. In the small print of Putin’s speech, he proposes to centralize authority even more than the present by reducing the power of regional authorities to control their prosecutors. “I am confident that a greater independence of prosecution agencies from local authorities would be beneficial for citizens regardless of the region,” Putin said. Public distrust of both federal and regional prosecutors, recorded in the polls, suggests otherwise.

Source: Levada Centre, October 2016: https://www.levada.ru/

The Putin scheme also creates a competing source of legislative power by expanding the State Council, hitherto a talking shop; and by expanding the powers of the Constitutional Court to rule, on the Kremlin’s application, against parliament, as well as against regional governors and regional parliaments.

The State Council in its last Kremlin session, December 26, 2019. In his speech on Wednesday Putin proposed to “cardinally increase the role of governors in decision-making at the federal level. As you know, back in 2000 the State Council was restored at my initiative, where the heads of all regions participate. Over the past period the State Council has proven its high effectiveness; its working groups provide for the professional, comprehensive and qualified examination of issues that are most important for people and Russia. I believe it would be appropriate to fix the status and role of the State Council in the Russian Constitution.” On Thursday he ignored the State Council by appointing a different group to consider the constitutional amendments. No Russian commentator has published the question, why.

In theory, Putin is creating more checks and balances than have existed before. Differences of view and interest between experts, parties, factions, the military, and classes – Putin’s term – are inevitable and natural. The vote to adopt the proposals will, however, be an all-or-nothing one. “I believe it necessary to hold a vote of Russian citizens on the entire package of the proposed amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. The final decision must be made only on the basis of its results,” the president concluded in his speech.

This looks like a referendum, but Article 136 of the current Constitution is ambiguous. The 2008 amendments to the Constitution were adopted, not by referendum but by votes of the State Duma and the Federation Council. There has been no referendum under the present constitution.

How much of the proposed scheme is a fine distinction of powers without a change in their  division?  Putin told Medvedev at the meeting with the outgoing ministers: “There is a clear-cut presidential block of issues, and there is a Government block of issues, even though the President, of course, is responsible for everything, but the presidential block includes primarily matters of security, defence and the like. Mr Medvedev has always been in charge of these matters. From the point of view of increasing our defence capability and security, I consider it possible and have asked him to deal with these matters in the future. I consider it possible and will, in the near future, introduce the position of Deputy Chairman of the Security Council. As you are aware, the President is its Chairman. If we need to amend the applicable law, I will do so soon and I want State Duma deputies to support this as well. We just need the lawyers to provide assessments on this account.”

Sources in Russian business and government interpret Medvedev’s new job as a gold-plated watch — consolation prize for losing the presidential succession race. Sources are unanimous in judging what has happened to be the liquidation of the Medvedev faction.

Politically, the rationale is obvious. Public disapproval of the government’s performance, and the stress which the ongoing US war is inflicting on Russia’s domestic growth, have been showing a consistent trend.

Source: http://www.levada.ru/en/

Source: https://www.levada.ru/en/

It is equally clear that the Medvedev faction, and also the pro-American supporters behind Alexei Kudrin at the Accounting Chamber, German Gref at Sberbank, and Anatoly Chubais at the state high-technology conglomerate Rusnano, are the short-term losers of the reorganisation Putin has proposed. The short-term gainers are not so obvious. Sources among them ask why the Kremlin staff calculated that a renovation of the government ministers should be dressed up as a constitutional reform.

These sources suggest that on the sincerity test, Putin’s proposals will not be believed for what he says they are. They add they are encouraged, also hopeful,  that he is acting now to restrict the damage that faction-fighting over the succession can do over the next three years. Liquidating one of the factions has been an option advocated by many for some time. On the other hand, the sources point out that if Putin were sincere in his commitment to enhanced power-sharing with the parliamentary political parties, why sack the present prime minister now, and not wait for the State Duma to vote its approval for the new man under the new rules? This is a question which answers itself, most Russians think.

By the war test — how the proposals will affect the regime-change strategy of the US and NATO – the combination of constitutional plans and the replacement of Medvedev by Mikhail Mishustin (lead image, in car next to Putin) is judged to be no gain, no concession to the other side. Not yet.  

That leaves the poll test. To choose Mishustin to become the prime minister is the biggest surprise of the week, and a curious selection to win public approval. If Gogol were to use the name, he would be tagging its possessor with something like the caricature, “busy baker”, since to the Russian ear,  the roots of the word  suggest someone who makes his living mixing things, like a baker; and who is visibly busy at that work.  Mishustin himself likes to identify his recreation as ice-hockey.  On the rink he plays forward and back, but not goalie. 

Left: Mikhail Mishustin makes his nomination speech at the State Duma,  his debut as a national political figure. Watch the speech, which was read from a paper script and lacked direct eye  or any other personal contact with the deputies. They responded to the speech with brief,  tepid applause. Right: Mishustin in his hockey uniform.   

The Russian biographic record for Mishustin, records his long technocratic training in computer science and economics; his PhD was on tax administration. He first started in the state tax agency in 1998.

A 53-year old native of Moscow, Mishustin is reported to be part-Armenian by origin; his Soviet birth certificate may indicate that at birth one of his parents held Armenian nationality. If so, he would automatically hold Armenian citizenship.  According to Putin’s constitutional proposals, the prime minister and other senior officials may “have no foreign citizenship or residence permit or any other document that allows them to live permanently in a foreign state.”

A protégé of Boris Fyodorov in the Yeltsin-era finance administration, Mishustin spent a brief period, 2008-2010, working in the Moscow investment banking business of UFG Partners, first established by Fyodorov. By the time Mishustin arrived, the company was owned by Deutsche Bank and run by Charles Ryan, an American; Fyodorov died of a stroke a few months into Mishustin’s term at UFG. In April 2010, Mishustin returned to run the tax agency, and he has remained there for a decade. Tax evasion and  embezzlement of value added tax (VAT) fill the kompromat records which have been published about Mishustin over this period.

Mishustin told the State Duma yesterday he is in favour of reducing the regulatory burden on Russian business. The Communist Party faction announced it would abstain from voting to confirm the prime minister because it was impossible to know what policies he stands for. Suspicion that Mishustin will try to cut social welfare benefits is widespread. The confirmation vote was 383 in favour; 41 abstentions; no one opposed. For the record of the Duma vote, read this.

One oligarch vote of confidence in Mishustin has been announced. Vladimir Lisin (right), head of the Novolipetsk steel and coal-mining group, told a Moscow newspaper: “We evaluate Mikhail Mishustin’s work as head of the Federal Tax Service positively. Under his leadership, the service increased tax collection, virtually eliminated schemes used by unscrupulous businesses in competition, and reduced the number of on-site inspections several times by introducing a risk-based approach. Despite the fact that we had quite difficult debates, we always found a common
civilized solution.”

Mishustin has appeared several times before this week in Putin’s Kremlin office. most often to mark Tax Workers’ Day in November. In their meetings Mishustin’s recital of his agency’s performance was unexceptional. Putin said nothing out of the ordinary.   In the Russian photo archive for Mishustin, not one picture shows a smile on his face. A reluctant grin he managed for his last birthday, March 3, 2019, according to the Russian Ice Hockey Federation.    

Putin has selected factotums before, men whose technical expertise was their asset, along with their lack of political constituency and electoral ambition. Mikhail Fradkov was the first, between 2004 and 2008; Victor Zubkov the second, between 2007 and 2008. When Putin appointed them, they made no changes to the power ministries. Mishustin is the third in this line. If he announces the end of the long terms in office of Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov, and General Valery Gerasimov is replaced at the General Staff, then Putin is deciding much more than he has admitted so far.

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