Is a change in the power balance between executive and legislature presently underway in Russia?

What does the reshuffle in the cabinet of the past several days tell us?

The past several days have seen announcements in TASS and other mainstream Russian media regarding an interesting cabinet reshuffle which President Putin has confirmed following new procedures that were set out in rather sketchy manner in the constitutional amendments approved by the Duma and then by the general population in a referendum earlier this year. 

News and analysis of the reshuffle by Russian journalists has been disjointed, telling us a lot about some of the new faces filling ministerial slots but giving little insight into what the logic driving the change may have been. Commentary from Western media has been almost non-existent.  As usual our Russian experts are all piled up at the same “scrimmage lines” of which the cabinet change is not one. Instead they are trying to make sense of Russia’s passage through Covid-19, of the Russian involvement in the peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan about Nagorno-Karabakh, of Russian reaction to the election of Joe Biden. This is what we see reflected in yesterday and today’s issues of Johnson’s Russia List.

The most persuasive explanation of the cabinet reshuffle that I have seen in Russian media is that Prime Minister Mishustin was removing persons he took over from the Medvedev era and was installing people he feels more comfortable with, nearly all of them technocrats rather than politicians. However, there are indications, particularly when we consider the move of Alexander Novak from the Ministry of Energy to a newly created position as the 10th Deputy Prime Minister, for us to believe that something more substantial is underway, and that it may be related to the very big issue of an eventual succession to Vladimir Putin.

The procedure now is for the Prime Minister to name the new ministers, for them to confirmed or rejected by the Duma within certain deadlines, and for the Duma-approved ministers to be confirmed in their positions by the President.

We are informed only partially by Russian media on the nay votes and abstentions, both of which were applied to several of the ministerial nominations. We are told that A Just Russia and LDPR were against certain proposed appointments. We are not told how the Communists voted. And all of these Duma parties were not given the microphone to explain themselves.

We may assume that the nominations were approved because of unanimous support from the governing United Russia party.  We note that even with the partial information disseminated it is clear that the process of forming a new cabinet has been left entirely in the hands of United Russia with no attempt to bring in ministers coming from the opposition parties in the Duma.  We may expect, on this basis,  that in the next parliamentary elections United Russia will go for broke to retain its majority and will seek no accommodation or power sharing with other parties.  That may well be a lost opportunity for consolidation of the Russian power structure.

Now, with respect to Alexander Novak:  I find that his “promotion” to Deputy Prime Minister status is very curious. Given the great respect he enjoyed abroad as the country’s chief negotiator over the export terms of the country’s most important sector, oil and gas, it is hard to see that his becoming one of ten deputy prime ministers is truly a move up.  At best it is a lateral move having as its logic to use Novak’s profound industry knowledge, discretion and success as negotiator to help with management of domestic affairs during a period of considerable stress arising from the Covid crisis.

It is tantalizing to read in some Russian media that Duma deputies expect Novak to get involved in resolving issues of the gas industry in the domestic market, namely “gasification” and rate setting for domestic consumers.  It is a widely felt failure across Russia that the world’s largest exporter of gas only partly satisfies the demand for pipeline gas in its own population.  Most of rural Russia is heated by logs in cast iron stoves and cooks with gas from steel cylinders which must be refilled regularly, at great effort.  The failure to supply pipeline gas also affects many cities across Russia.  We all know about the occasional explosions in apartment houses: very little is said of the extent to which they are caused by tenants using gas from cylinders.

The fact that Gazprom has not hooked up much of the population with pipeline gas has to do with the pricing and with the limited means the company has to exact payment from the many consumers who do not pay their bills. If the skills of Novak are brought to bear on these issues, we may expect great progress on one of the biggest irritants in the daily life of Russia’s rural population.

Redirecting Novak to domestic Russian problems may well prepare him for bigger things to come in Russia’s power structure.

None of the foregoing bears directly on the question of Putin’s eventual succession.  But clearly something is underway when we speak of the consolidation of Mishustin’s power through the cabinet reshuffle and about his prospective use of one of the country’s most talented managers to address key domestic problems, as appears to be the case with Novak.

The foregoing prompts me to reconsider the seriousness of the constitutional amendment that enables Putin’s staying on in the presidency beyond 2024.  Perhaps that was, as many said at the time, just a tactical measure to shut up all those who spoke of him as a lame duck president.   Time will tell.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

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