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Putin’s new PM promises ‘real changes’ for Russians

MOSCOW: Mikhail Mishustin, President Vladimir Putin’s nominee for the post of prime minister, speaks to lawmakers during a session of the State Duma lower parliament in Moscow yesterday. – AFP

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new prime minister promised “real changes” yesterday as he was approved by lawmakers after the Kremlin announced sweeping reform plans. The lower house State Duma voted overwhelmingly to approve Mikhail Mishustin as premier, less than 24 hours after Russia’s political order was shaken by Putin’s announcement of constitutional reforms and the resignation of the government.

No MPs voted against his candidacy, although Communist lawmakers abstained. Speaking before his approval, Mishustin called on parliament to work with him to urgently enact Putin’s programme. “People should already now be feeling real changes for the better,” Mishustin said. The naming of a new premier was one in a series of bombshell announcements that rocked Russia on Wednesday, when Putin said constitutional reform would change the country’s balance of power and his longtime prime minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned along with the cabinet.

Putin’s current term as president ends in 2024 and observers say the 67-year-old could be laying the groundwork to assume a new position or remain in a powerful behind-the-scenes role. Mishustin said his priority would be to “increase citizens’ real incomes” but also said the government must “restore trust” with the business community and drive innovation, echoing the state-of-the-nation speech on Wednesday when Putin announced the reforms. Mishustin assured lawmakers that Russia can afford salary hikes and social payouts announced by Putin, estimating they will cost about four trillion rubles ($65 billion) over the next four years.

‘Stay number one’
In his state of the nation speech, Putin said he wanted more authority transferred to parliament from the president. He also called for the power of the State Council, an advisory body, to be expanded and enshrined in the constitution — adding to conjecture that Putin could take it over after 2024 to preserve power.

Outlining the proposals, which would be the first significant changes to the country’s constitution since it was adopted in 1993, Putin said there was a “demand for change” among Russians. While his nominee Mishustin was speaking in parliament, Putin met his newly formed working group for amending the constitution. Putin said the amendments “would have no effect on the foundations of the constitution” but would make authorities “more effective” and ensure Russia’s development.

He said Russia would remain a presidential republic following the reforms, but it would be parliament not the president who would be picking the government. A list of more than 70 names joining the group published by the Kremlin includes conservative public figures as well as celebrities like actor Vladimir Mashkov and pianist Denis Matsuev. Medvedev, prime minister since 2012, announced the resignation of his government soon after Putin’s speech on Wednesday, explaining the move as necessary to remove all constraints from Putin’s reform drive.

Independent political analyst Maria Lipman said the announcements indicated that Putin wanted to “stay on as number one in the country, without any competitors”. She said he could be deliberately weakening the presidency before relinquishing the role. Russia’s opposition also said the proposals indicate Putin’s desire to stay in power. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on Twitter that Putin’s only goal was to “remain the sole leader for life”.

‘Faceless functionary’
Mishustin will have a week to propose a new government and ministers. The former head of an investment group who trained as an engineer, Mishustin has a PhD in economics and has led Russia’s Federal Tax Service since 2010. He shares Putin’s love for hockey and has been seen at matches with security services officials.

Former opposition lawmaker Gennadiy Gudkov called Mishustin “a new faceless functionary without ambition” who embodies a system that is “detrimental for the economy”. Medvedev — who also served as Russian president for four years from 2008 — is expected to stay close to the Russian leader in his new role as deputy head of the Security Council, which Putin chairs. – AFP

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