20 January 2020

What happens in Moscow is good both for Putin and Russia (?)

Cristian Eremia

Russia’s Putin, Vladimir Putin, addressed, a few days ago, the traditional annual message in front of Russia’s Federal Assembly, a message which traditionally includes a detailed analysis of the Russian nation state and the presidential political orientations for the effective year in the social-economic, political and internal affairs fields, as well as the foreign policy and security plans. The event was spread all over the world because, immediately after president’s speech, Russia’s government, led by former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, has resigned. However, without creating an internal political crisis in Moscow.

Image source: Mediafax

Everything happened extremely quickly, so that the following day after Medvedev Government resigned, Russia’s State Duma received and approved unanimously (January 16th) president Putin’s new nominalization for the prime-minister position. Soon after that it was also signed the presidential decree to appoint Mikhail Mishustin as president of the Russian Government (the official prime-minister name in Russia is president of the Government).

This political manoeuvre the Russian president did was a big surprise in Russia, having the same impact on the society as did the seizure of Crimea in 2014.

Which are the new internal policy directions Putin is establishing?

President Putin stated since the very beginning of his annual message to the Federal Assembly[1] that “We need to address large-scale social, economic and technological tasks facing the country more quickly and without delay”. The development guidelines shaped on this occasion will “be reflected in the national projects, whose implementation will require a new quality of state governance and work on the part of the Government and state bodies at all levels, as well as direct dialogue with citizens”. From that moment on, it was clear that the Russian internal policy was going to be changed, as well as the speed of the political modifications.

Let’s see what the Russian leader has stressed exactly in his annual speech

International security. Unlike past years, when Putin talked a lot on this topic, now he reduced his speech to observing how “unpredictable and uncontrollable” the global security situations is, particularly referring to Middle East and North Africa, as the “regional conflicts can rapidly grow into threats to the entire international community”. Putin seemed “convinced that it is high time for a serious and direct discussion about the basic principles of a stable world order and the most acute problems that humanity is facing”. He indirectly called on the five global nuclear powers to show responsibility and adopt those measures to ensure the global strategic stability and eliminate any premises for a global war. In his message on foreign policy he ensured that Russia will be opened to cooperation with interested actors, because “we are not threatening anyone or seeking to impose our will on anyone”.

National security and defence. In this area also, references were fewer than in previous years, when Kremlin detailed the unprecedented construction of new threatening weapons in the world with cutting-edge technologies. He transmitted to all interested that “our efforts to strengthen national security were made in a timely manner and in sufficient volume”. He underlined that “for the first time in the history of nuclear missile weapons, including the Soviet period and modern times, we are not catching up with anyone, but, on the contrary, other leading states have yet to create the weapons that Russia already possesses”. It came out that although Russia’s defence is today ensured in advance for 10 years, Russia will carefully watch what’s happening in the world, developing the necessary armament for the future generations.

On the other hand, the Russian leader stressed that Russia's very good situation in terms of security and defence will generate the needed peace for Russia’s progressive development and allow a greater concentration of Moscow’s leadership on the most pressing internal socio-economic problems.

The modernization of the Russian Constitution, state construction and internal politics. President Putin began by responding to political and civil associations’ "request" that raised the issue of adopting a new Constitution, stressing that there is no such need, because the potential of the current Constitution - adopted in 1993, is far from being exhausted. He then brought to everyone’s attention the decisions and orientations he personally sees necessary in order to ensure Russian state’s full sovereignty[2], considering that, however, it was time to bring some amendments to the Constitution:

  • First of all, it is necessary to clearly include in the Constitution the international law and treaties’ provisions, as well as the decisions of international structures to be able to be implemented on Russia’s territory only insofar as they do not imply restrictions on human rights and freedoms and "do not contradict our Constitution“.
  • Secondly, he proposed to constitutionally establish mandatory responsibilities and requirements for people having critical positions in ensuring country’s security and sovereignty, namely heads of Federation’s constituent entities, parliamentarians, federal ministers, heads of other federal bodies, judges and prosecutors, in the sense that they cannot have foreign nationality, a residence permit or other document that would allow them to have permanent residence in another state’s territory. Even stricter requirements should be imposed on people seeking the position of Russian Federation’s President (such as the requirement of permanent residence in Russia for at least 25 years, lack of foreign nationality, etc.).  
  • Putin believes that the constitutional provision according to which the same person should not hold the office of Russia’s President for more than two consecutive terms is not "a fundamental problem, but I also agree with it". With these details he created concern, raising many speculations about his plans for 2024, when his last term ends. However, time will prove what the special working group set up at Kremlin will be concretely introduced in the draft amendments.
  • Given that Russia is a huge country and each Federation topic has its own characteristics and problems, Putin believes that it must radically increase the role and responsibilities of governors in the elaboration and decision making at the federal level. Therefore, the "State Council" role in the consolidation of Russian nationality - a body "resurrected" by the president, composed by the head of state, presidents of the two parliamentary chambers and all Federation’s heads of subjects, must be consolidated by the Russian Constitution. Moreover, Putin asked the State Duma (lower chamber of the parliament) to assume political more responsible powers for Government’s establishment, meaning that it should assume the designation of the entire cabinet, which must also be included in the Constitution.   

All in all, President Putin believes that all his proposals represent a profound change in the state establishment and the Russian political system. However, the Russian leader was extremely clear and firm, urging Russia to remain a strong presidential republic. As such, the president must keep his right to set Government’s tasks and priorities, as well as the right to dismiss the prime minister, his deputies and federal ministers in case of improper performance, or in case of political confidence loss. The president must also directly control the armed forces, the other central force structures and the entire law enforcement system. The President will appoint the heads of all power structures, including central and local justice institutions, following consultations with the Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament).

The Russian leader wants changes in the Constitution to be made until May 1st, including consulting the citizens through a special referendum.

Economic growth. The references to socio-economic problems were extremely detailed. To sum up, the chief of state decided that urgent measures should be taken for further macro-economic stabilization, as foundation for creating the conditions for sustained and stable economic growth. Hereof, he has demanded structural changes in the Russian economy, increasing economic efficiency and increasing investments across the economy from 21% to 25% of GDP today. All measures are expected to increase Russia's GDP by 2021 at a rate higher than global growth. He called on the parliament and the government to create the legal framework for the promotion, protection and long-term guarantee by the state of investments. He pointed to concrete measures and deadlines for the development of the business environment, small businesses, including tourism, emphasizing the state funds for the development and adoption by the most advanced technologies sector, the development of large infrastructures and the export of high technologies.

Focusing on citizen’s well-being. Putin believes that citizens demand change because they want to achieve a decent standard of living. Two major problems facing Russia, namely poverty and the demographic future, were mainly discussed. Citizens’ incomes and their families reached low levels, according to the chief of state, also being the main reason for the serious social and demographic problems facing Russia. The "social contract" mechanism now applied in Russia is inefficient and is no longer matching the Russian socio-economic realities and, therefore, he has ordered the measures necessary for the state to provide incomes and permanent social assistance to citizens with low or no incomes, or from disadvantaged areas, to provide the necessary training for finding jobs, or small businesses’ training. Similarly, he gave concrete numbers on population’s income increases and the deadlines to be achieved. Economic situation’s impact on the population (currently about 147 million people) is affecting population’s natural growth, the declining number of families, decrease of children’s number and the life expectancy. There were shaped tasks to raise minimum wages in all subjects of the federation, children's allowances (especially in category 3 to 7 years) and other measures to support families. Thus, by 2024, it should be achieved an average birth rate of 1.7 children per woman. The Russian leader also spoke talked the need to invest in culture, schools, universities, even the fact that by 2021 all schools will have high-speed Internet.

Some observations on the Moscow event

First of all, it is for the first time, in recent years, when President Putin has rushed so hard with this message, precisely because he was decided to make a major change in internal politics.

Putin's surprised the Russian citizens big time, but in the end the there was no drama around Moscow government’s change was a victory. Putin warned, since 2019, that such an economic growth is not likely to support Russia’s wishes, that the Russian economy cannot support the obligations assumed on foreign policy, that it will not be able to guarantee the fulfilment of announced social-economic policies, and country’s security will also be affected in. Putin explained it and made everyone believe that changing the government with a new team, as much as possible composed of high important technocrats, will happen anyway.

Undoubtedly, no one was expecting these things to happen on the political scene in Moscow. The surprise and wonder were so strong especially among the political opposition that the Russian media found, for example, that the Russian liberals went for a short period through several successive phases - denial, anger, hysteria, depression and finally accepting the new internal policy course printed by President Putin.

Failures of former government led by Medvedev and his party, United Russia, could not be overlooked and accepted by Putin, because the Russian society could no longer understand president’s lack of involvement and action given that party's mistakes both on the central political scene, as well as within the Russian Federation’s members. The failures of local elections in several regions, as well as the blockage of free elections for the Moscow State Duma, which has led to protest by citizens outraged by the total undemocratic behaviour of the current political regime, are enough reasons for such action. These protests were suppressed by the Russian power structures, and citizens no intervention and protection from President Putin.

Moscow’s society and opposition parties blamed Kremlin for lack of involvement in domestic politics, which also led to small adhesion for Putin's internal politics in opinion polls. However, Kremlin cleverly used the situation and did not stop the actions of its force structures, precisely to be removed - as far as possible, any kind of anti-regime movements leaders that could enter the Russian political elite in Moscow and become thus credible and legitimate counter-candidates of President Putin.

On the other hand, some political observers have been aware for some time of Putin's political distance from the ruling party, United Russia. The issue was more evident at party’s last congress, when Putin addressed a linear message, ostensibly lacking of interesting future elements for this party. Concurrently, by showing Medvedev government’s lack of ability to manage, as needed, country’s socio-economic development and, in general, the domestic political affairs, the president cut off any "impetus" of his former political partner Medvedev to stand in the way a potential alternative supreme leader, for 2024, when Putin's last term will end.

Who is the new Russian prime-minister, Mikhail Mishustin?

Mihail Mishustin (53 years old) has a PhD in economic sciences and he’s a firm technocrat in one of the most sensitive federal financial fields. He firstly worked for the implementation of a modern cadastral system. He is one of the Russian intellectuals who believed in the power of "digitizing" public systems. Later, he also worked for the "digitization" of the Russian Federal Tax Service (FTS). Appointed as chief of FTS (Federal Tax Service) in 2010, he succeeded in reforming and transforming his bureaucratic and corrupt department into a modern online service open to all categories of payers, a service tailored to international best practices in the field and to advanced digital technologies. He managed to eliminate most of the "gray tax schemes", small and large businesses were removed from the "shadow" or undercover area, and the collection of taxes and duties such as VAT in Russia increased, according to statistics, even in times of economic crisis.

He is a harsh manager, firm in decisions, in other words, a strong leader, perfect to lead a government, to launch and manage ambitious national projects. He is a leader who meets, according to many interested circles in Moscow, most of President Putin's criteria demand for this position in the current internal political circumstances.

He knows the issues related to collecting taxes on budget revenues in detail, he can indicate the origin of tax collectors and the new oligarchs who tend to "get out of the line" and no longer submit to power, as well as many other such things.

It is worth mentioning that the State Duma voted Mishustin with 341 votes for, no vote against, but with 41 abstentions from the Communists. It is an obvious evidence that President Putin still dominates the Russian parliament.

How will government’s new team look like? Putin is used to being bold and knows that the new economic model to be launched and supported must be well understood and well managed by the federal government. By ending this article, no information was published about the members of the government or about ministers to be kept in office of the Medvedev Government. However, most likely, Putin will retain, form the former government, some dignitaries who have led state structures.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[2] Putin underlined that “Our nation’s sovereignty must be unconditional. We have done a great deal to achieve this. We restored our state’s unity. We have overcome the situation when certain powers in the government were essentially usurped by oligarch clans. Russia has returned to international politics as a country whose opinion cannot be ignored”, but which has to be followed. “We created powerful reserves, which multiplies our country’s stability and capability to protect its citizens’ social rights and the national economy from any attempts of foreign pressure.”