“Mishustin's task is not to make the economy worse!”
Sergey Markelov on the results of the first year of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and his possible future
Exactly a year ago, the head of the Federal Tax Service (FTS), Mikhail Mishustin, was entrusted to head the government of the country. Political analyst Sergey Markelov explained to Realnoe Vremya this choice of President Putin and told whether the prime minister can be considered as a possible successor to the current head of the state.
“From the point of view of adjusting for the pandemic, Mishustin is lucky: he is not criticised”
Sergey, exactly a year ago, when the previous government headed by Dmitry Medvedev was dismissed, you said that the new composition with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin would be temporary and not related to strategic tasks for the country. Is it possible to say the same thing about the government and the prime minister now, a year later — that these are temporary figures? And by the way — why temporary?
The concept of “temporary” in politics means that “the glass is half empty and, at the same time, half full” — personally, I meant that the definition of “temporary” for the new government is quite important because everything that happens in Russian politics is a temporary concept.
By and large, if the policy of the authorities is correct, then the concept of “temporary” is exploited for the benefit of both the policy itself and the population.
We can observe this, for example, in the context of current American politics — President Trump encroached on the sacred in US politics, that is, its temporality, its cyclical nature, which caused a logical discontent of society, since everyone knows that in the United States, in accordance with the law, there are constantly rotations of presidents, rotations of elites — even if these elites represent only the camps of the Democratic and Republican parties.
And I still believe that the government of Mikhail Mishustin is temporary, but not from the point of view of the main meaning of the term “temporary”, but from the point of view of the nuances that have appeared that affect the Russian economy.
When Mishustin was appointed, his figure was primarily intended to reassure the then players of the Russian establishment: in this case, I mean various lobbyists — security forces, oligarchs and all the rest. But here we can say “thank you” to the pandemic — it was the Mishustin government that was appropriate for working in difficult conditions, and the mandate of the “temporariness” of Mishustin's government turned into a prolonged effect.
What do I mean by effect? I mean a simple and fundamental thing for today — in history, some of the most stable governments, prime ministers, presidents were those who could successfully cope with the stressful situations in which their country was located. The pandemic turned the idea of temporariness of Mishustin's government into the idea of a constant, and Mishustin had a historic chance to become a serious figure — yes, focusing the population, the president, and various forces on the activities of the government became mandatory, but in terms of adjusting for the pandemic, Mishustin was lucky: he was not criticised. You see, you can criticise doctors as much as you want, but in the context of the pandemic, criticism of doctors stops because the society understands the complexity of the problem, you can criticise the security forces as much as you want, but in the context of certain catastrophes, people calm down in their criticism, and the Mishustin's government also got into this niche in 2020 — yes, people could criticise it for something done wrong and something unfinished, but there is a pandemic, which means that one should be quiet and look what is happening around.
You said that the choice of Mishustin was necessary for some kind of reassurance of the elites. Could you specify what it is about? What excited and worried the elites before the appointment of the new government so much?
In Russia, there are two points of application of the efforts of the elites in terms of their future existence and influence on the processes in the country. The first point is President Putin. When the president, for example, gives the go-ahead to the elites to engage, relatively speaking, in some national project or something else, there is a second point of application — this is an executive story, and the Russian government is engaged in it.
What has the elites been fighting for in recent years? First of all, for cash flows because thanks to them, the elites can influence various processes, maintain their status quo and use this status indefinitely and with great prospects.
And the appointment of Mishustin was supposed to stop the elites' concern for their future — this concerned both the security forces, the president's inner circle, and distant circles such as regional elites, the political family of Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who has packages of influence on many regional elites.
I still believe that the government of Mikhail Mishustin is temporary, but not from the point of view of the main meaning of the term “temporary”, but from the point of view of the nuances that have appeared that affect the Russian economy
Was only Mishustin suitable for calming the elites? Why was he chosen in the end?
You will be surprised, but it was the traditional Russian “technology” — in the world, it is called “jack-in-the-box”, and from the point of view of the system of political decision-making by the president, it can be called in the simplest words — “unexpected”, “unusual”, “not expected by anyone”.
Why did an unexpected candidate appear? The thing is that lobbyists usually push the president with their candidacies, and because of this, the president, I am sure, had a long list of candidates for prime minister, and then a short list, and Mishustin was not there.
In general, this picture with the search for candidates also applies to governors: this is what happened to Alexander Uss, who was appointed Krasnoyarsk governor — although Uss will never become a good governor. This choice is the result of that Putin does not like to be “pressed” and brought to some figure, he makes his own decision — different — and unexpected, and not so much.
So it was in 2014 when choosing the head of Udmurtia, when Putin said — either this one or the other, but he saw that the first has one command, the second another, and suggested that instead of them Senator from the Republic of the Federation Council Solovyov — a good boy, let him be a term or a couple of times, everything will calm down, and then we get back to the appointment of another person. So it was with Mishustin.
“Mishustin even in a dream is afraid to imagine that he will be offered to become president”
It is clear — the figure of Mishustin is not from someone's camp (security forces, business, liberal people surrounded by Putin), but suits the elite. And how does Putin personally perceive the prime minister's position? As a technical figure? Yes, there are elites for whom it is important, but for the president, what is the role of prime minister now?
Until 2008, President Putin was involved, as they say, “to the molecules”, in all economic issues of the country — he pulled the country out of economic ruins, fought economic crimes, negotiated with oligarchs so that they did not get involved in politics, punished them. But after 2008, Putin, as I understood after conversations with experts, became uninterested in economic policy — he allowed his participation in the economy only to voice strategic things and participated in solving those issues where the economy merged with geopolitics.
Now Putin is only concerned with the issues of Gazprom — that is, the company's contacts with Asia, Europe, the issues of market sales of our main raw materials — for him, the economy is now such, that is, the economy, in parallel with which there is politics, so his attitude to the position of prime minister, to the government's position at the beginning of 2021 is the following — as long as they make no worse, but otherwise let them drag the economy, form a discipline, rely on national projects, increase requirements for governors.
In other words, Putin decided that there should be no creative people in the government, there should be no initiative people — there should only be people with strict executive discipline, and only for this he asks members of the government. In terms of performance discipline, Mishustin did not make any big mistake as the prime minister.
Putin decided that there should be no creative people in the government, there should be no initiative people — there should only be people with strict performance discipline, and only for this he asks members of the government
Does it turn out that Mishustin is a technical prime minister for the president, nothing more?
Is Mishustin ready to become president if Putin intends to leave the main post in the country? After all, no one has declared the issue of transit of power closed, despite the well-known “zeroing” of the terms of the current head of the state.
Mishustin even in a dream is afraid to imagine that he will be offered to become president. As you correctly said, Mishustin is a technical prime minister and is ready to be a performer to death — this is the ceiling of his life. Can he become president? From the point of view of personnel surprise, of course, he can, and moreover, he will be a good technical president with calculated initiatives, but Mishustin will not create any creative things. He is half-silovik, half-taxman — he can do digitalisation in the country, but not something strategically. Certainly, the new position changes the character of a person, and I do not rule out that if a lot is expected from President Mishustin, he will not give up the temptation to start implementing some important ideas.
Mishustin is a statesman, or maybe a hidden democrat, a liberal?
First of all, Mishustin is a good technical official, and he is afraid of politics like fire — he understands that he will be outplayed on the political field.
If Mishustin was considered as a serious candidate for president, probably, some of his serious powers would be visible now, as Putin had under Yeltsin?
Mikhail Mishustin does not have such powers. But the attempt to be non-political prime minister is one of the challenges for the future Mishustin: yes, they apparently Putin agreed that Mishustin cannot gain the skills of a politician but Mishustin looks a bit distorted for the second person in the country figure, plays in purely economic premiere and absolutely loyal to the president. But simply because this is one of the conditions of the “game”, if you want — no game with governors, with the State Duma and so on.
Every year, your colleague Yevgeny Minchenko gives a picture of who is currently the president's inner circle — the people who form certain decisions, ideas and influence their adoption by Putin. Minchenko called this circle “Politburo 2.0". Does it include Prime Minister Mishustin as officially the second person in the state?
He is not in the Politburo 2.0 — Mishustin is engaged in economics.
Of course, according to the status of Mishustin, you can put him anywhere in the political space, but Mishustin does not belong, so to speak, to any political family — he is just a certain executive director of a corporation, that is, a person who deals with the entire operational economy of the corporation, all its problems.
If we understand a corporation as a country, then it has a CEO — Putin, and there is an executive director — and this is Mikhail Mishustin — just a classic executive director.
Now Mishustin's task is one — so that he does not make the economy that he has adopted worse! If he makes it a little better — great, but for now — the main thing is that it is not worse than before.
But even the goals to keep the economy from falling, not to make it worse, don't not require ideas?
Mishustin does have ideas, but they are paper. Of course, Mishustin plays a role in any document that comes from the presidential administration — moderately, carefully, but so that the document comes and Mishustin looks at it and says: “It will be my way because it is agreed with the president”, it will not be — Mishustin will simply reprimanded from all sides and in all places.
Now Mishustin's task is one — so that he does not make the economy that he has adopted worse! If he makes it a little better — great, but for now — the main thing is that it is not worse than before
“At the moment, all officials want to remove the topic of the pandemic from politics”
What is Prime Minister Mishustin being engaged now? If you say that he can be reprimanded for his initiative, then it is clear that the main economic decisions are made not by him, but by the Kremlin, the presidential administration. Then what does Mishustin do? The very work that the members of the previous government were unable to do?
Mishustin is engaged in national projects — this is a kind of work with the future of the Russian economy, strategic work. Besides, he is engaged in public administration reform, but this work can be done indefinitely — yes, 32,000 staff units will be reduced, but at the same time new structural elements of the same government will be created, which increases the staff. Besides, Mishustin is charged with strengthening the system of financial discipline in the country (this includes tax deductions, etc.), and in this regard, the president is very much relies on Mishustin, but in my opinion, this is as disastrous story as the reform of public administration.
The main concern of the authorities in 2020 was the fight against the coronavirus pandemic — it is difficult to talk about the failure of the authorities in this direction, despite many news about difficulties in healthcare, with medicines, etc. Is there any merit in this for the prime minister?
At the beginning of the pandemic, the place of both President Putin and Prime Minister Mishustin was determined — they led the fight against the coronavirus, but that's all over — now this topic is being suppressed out both politically, economically, and organisationally. Anyone who sticks to this topic is 90 per cent more likely to lose points than to gain them. Therefore, both Putin and Mishustin gave up this topic and dropped it on the relevant ministers, but even those eventually jumped away from it because they had to deal with very uncomfortable questions about hospitals and places in them, about the number of ventilators and their safety, about spending money, and now almost the only commentators on this topic are ordinary doctors or heads of departments or clinics.
At the moment, all officials want to remove the topic of the pandemic from politics, they want everything to calm down, and this topic has become a purely medical problem. This topic for the authorities has passed in general.
Mikhail Mishustin's task for 2021 is to mark more economic projects, in particular for ordinary people — for example, pensioners, pre-retirees, with the aim that all these projects will be “privatised” by the party in power, and this will begin from March-April 2021
The main event for Russian politics will be the September elections to the State Duma, and of course, there may be a temptation in the Kremlin to use the figure of Mishustin. What role can be assigned to Mishustin?
Mikhail Mishustin's task for 2021 is to mark more economic projects, in particular for ordinary people — for example, pensioners, pre-retirees, with the aim that all these projects will be “privatised” by the party in power, and this will begin from March-April 2021.
You've seen this before, when a bunch of people were asking Putin to make December 31 a day of rest — the government first rejected this idea, but then it was supported by United Russia, which appealed to Putin, who approved and recommended that the government accept it, and it did so.
And we will see such tricks from the spring — Mishustin will simply serve the political ambitions of the party in power.