Tuesday evening, 21 January, the composition of Russia’s new cabinet was announced to the nation and the world. Russian state television was caught as unawares as any of us in the broad public when the names of the departing ministers, the names and biographical details of arriving ministers and the few changes in reporting lines were released to the wire services. Their correspondents hastened to find Duma members, think tank celebrities and others whom they hoped could make sense of the changes for their viewers.
Eventually, late in the night, a picture emerged of what the latest seismic wave in Russian politics means. I will try to present the generalities here. I will not go into detailed examination of each minister, because such micro-investigation is neither my specialty, nor is it likely to interest an international readership for whom ‘which way the wind is blowing’ is quite sufficient.
Of course, in the past week, even the contours of political change have appeared inscrutable to Western media who could only fall back on the assumptions that whatever Putin is up to cannot be good. Hence, the flurry of articles following Mr. Putin’s address to the bicameral legislature a week ago which sought to portray the constitutional changes he promised as serving only one purpose: to perpetuate his dominance and control over Russian politics after his presidential term ends in 2024. That was so despite the fact that nothing whatsoever in his proposed reforms would facilitate the stated objective and despite the fact that the changes, which diminish his power when implemented, would come four years before he has to relinquish his office.
However, even the harshest critics of Russia and Putin are beginning to change their minds.
The New York Times’ “Morning Briefing” today told its online subscribers:
On social media, our correspondent writes from Moscow, Russian political analysts “have put forward so many different theories that they paint a picture of a nation in collective befuddlement.”
Case in point: Mr. Putin’s announcement prompted a string of high-level resignations and unexpected appointments. Yet the new cabinet, announced on Tuesday, includes the most prominent members of the last one.
Background: Many analysts initially thought that the constitutional changes were intended to allow Mr. Putin, 67, to take up a powerful role when his second presidential term expires in 2024. Now they aren’t so sure.
Chapeau! This is one of the rare instances when the editors of The New York Times have followed the facts to an inconvenient truth about Putin and Russia – and have shared with their readership what they found.
Surely the confusion in the minds of the Russian public, as well as domestic and foreign political observers, over how to understand all the changes and prospective changes in Russia’s federal government was not by accident, but by design. The intention of Mr. Putin and of Sergei Kiriyenko, his close assistant in these reforms within his presidential administration, was surely to conflate two very different political disruptions: first, the introduction of constitutional reforms that rebalance the power sharing between executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government; and second, the change of cabinet to remove ineffectual and unpopular ministers, to bring in fresh blood from among the most successful administrative and technical talent operating at the higher levels of the federal government and groomed for succession these past several years. Both very separate measures share one common feature: to lay the groundwork for the Duma elections scheduled to be held in September 2021. They will likely generate more excitement in the public and will be more consequential than would otherwise be the case.
As for the proposed constitutional changes, I believe they serve a very clearly defined purpose: to prepare Russia for the post-Putin era by introducing checks and balances that will prevent any one branch of government, meaning the executive, from ‘running away with the show’ and changing the vector of Russia’s development and its orientation in the world as the result of the unforeseeable popularity and electoral victory by a candidate to the presidency put up by the Opposition, or even by factions within the Ruling Party and other ‘Duma parties’ in 2024 and thereafter.
Commentators have often speculated on whom Putin was grooming as his successor. We now have the answer: no one. And this is a wise approach to the issue, because no one in Russia would be capable of filling the shoes of Vladimir Putin, who is a once in a hundred years political phenomenon. And so the shoes to be filled in 2024 and thereafter have been downsized via the power sharing provisions of the proposed constitutional reforms.
Now let us turn our attention to the new cabinet of ministers which Mr. Putin convened and welcomed last night.
In the past few days, many have asked why Putin prompted Dimitri Medvedev and his ministers to resign a week ago. One of my fellow panelists in a Turkish international English television (TRT World) program yesterday devoted to Putin’s announced reforms offered the explanation that Medvedev was, in effect, forced out because he is so unpopular in the country. See here.
Indeed, unpopular he was, but that is not a new development. Rather, I believe the fate of Dimitri Medvedev and his cabinet was decided in the presidential administration back in December when the weak results on implementation of the president’s high priority National Projects during 2019 came in and when it also became clear that GDP growth during the year had been anemic, trailing rather than matching or exceeding global trends. A government shakeup was already in the cards from that moment.
Medvedev’s loss of popularity in the past couple of years also surely may be attributed to the focused attacks directed at him by the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who uncovered compromising material relating to the prime minister’s personal wealth and also to the unseemly abuse of rights to government transport and other resources by his wife. Nonetheless, his being sidelined at present does not necessarily exclude his return to positions of power in the future.
It must be remembered that during his tenure as president, Medvedev showed himself to be the most outgoing, the most friendly to the West of all Russian and Soviet heads of state in the last hundred years or more. It was a very regrettable mistake by Western leaders that his initiative to begin talks on revising the security architecture of Europe was spurned, and that he was intentionally misled about NATO intentions in Libya when the UN, with Russian support, voted to allow military intervention for humanitarian purposes.
Personal unpopularity or battle fatigue may explain the decision not to reappoint several members of the outgoing cabinet. The first rule pertains to Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, who is guilty of graphomania and has been filling a whole library shelf with his overly nationalistic and simplistic histories while in office. Moreover, he got embroiled in quite controversial issues of what is permitted as artistic expression, making many enemies.
Then there was the non-reappointment of Vitaly Mutko who had been the Sports Minister until 2016 and carried all the baggage of Russia’s shame over doping, of its strained relations with FIFA. Mutko had been ‘kicked upstairs’ to a deputy premiership more for the sake of defying Western allegations against him than because of any personal merit justifying his new position. Clearly it was time to move on and reward others more worthy. As for Minister of Health Dr. Veronika Skvortsova, who was omnipresent in the country overseeing a vast reform program to bring quality health care to the rural population and also raise the level of diagnosis and early treatment for cardiovascular and oncological illnesses everywhere, the best guess is that she was simply worn down by the task and needed to pass the baton to someone else.
In my two essays on the planned constitutional reforms over the past week, I expressed the optimistic hope that President Putin would use the occasion of appointing a new cabinet to take the first step towards power sharing with the Duma. Specifically, I suggested that he might bring into the cabinet parliamentarians from the minority parties in the Duma, allotting to them portfolios in the more innocent domains such as labor, social welfare and culture, in effect forming a coalition government and thereby consolidating the Russian political landscape.
Reviewing the list of new ministers in the incoming cabinet, it is clear that quite the opposite has happened: the cabinet has been de-politicized. To be sure, nearly all members of the cabinet are members of the United Russia party. But they are what we may call just card-carrying members, whereas the former prime minister Dimitri Medvedev was and remains the head of United Russia.
The new cabinet members are concentrated in the ‘economic block’ and in the ‘social block’ of ministries, the two areas that rank very high in the fulfillment of President Putin’s pledges to the nation to raise living standards through fulfillment of his National Projects. They are what the Russians call хозяйственники or управленцы, which we may translate as highly competent managers with proven success in getting things done. Technocrats, by another name. One or two come from the administration of Moscow mayor Sobyanin, who oversees the country’s most successful municipality. One or two come from among the Prime Minister’s former colleagues in the Federal Tax Service, which is a model of technological innovation and efficiency.
At the same time, the most experienced and successful ministers from the Medvedev cabinet have been kept on in their posts. In particular, I point to Anton Siluanov at Finance, Sergei Lavrov at the Foreign Ministry, Sergei Shoigu at Defense, Alexander Novak at Energy. While Siluanov has been stripped of his rank as first deputy prime minister, he received moral compensation by being assigned the additional responsibility for State Property. I explain Siluanov’s removal from the deputy prime minister list as resulting from the ambitions of PM Mikhail Mishustin, who is himself a very experienced financial expert, to have free hands in this domain.
Now we will have to wait till just after the September 2021 Duma elections to see to what extent Mr. Putin intends to bring the lower house of parliament into the middle of national policy making by granting them seats in the cabinet.
Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020