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Out With the Old, in With the Pu: Russia's New Ministers and Their Take on Ukraine
30 January, 2020
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Russian president Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with with newly appointed prime minister Mikhail Mishustin during the first meeting with the members of the new Russian government. Moscow, Russia, January 21, 2020 Dmitry Astakhov / POOL

Following the surprise resignation of Russia’s old government, headed by long-time Putin apparatchik Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president Vladimir Putin has confirmed the makeup of the new Russian government, led by newly appointed prime minister and former tax head Mikhail Mishustin.

READ MORE: What We Know About Mikhail Mishustin, Russia’s New Prime Minister

But the shift in ministers isn’t quite a clean slate. About half of them will roll over to the new government, such as Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who’s held the post since 2004, and Sergey Shoygu, who has held the post of Minister of Defense since 2013. Shoygu has been in government as far back as 1994, having been first appointed as Minister of Emergency Situations, holding that post for 18 years until 2012. The youngest minister in Russia’s  government has also held on to his position – 39 year old Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic, Alexander Kozlov.

In total, five vice-ministers and ten ministers resigned along with Medvedev, including the ministers of education and culture. Hromadske explains what the new ministers will mean for Russia’s Ukraine policy, who will become the new Crimea curator, and which of the ministers are long-time friends of Mishustin. 

The Prime Minister’s Friends

Many of the incoming ministers are not exactly well-known political players in Russia. Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions program at the Carnegie Center Moscow, thinks that appointing these people is a typical Putin move. “In general, this is a government of first or second-row technocrats. This means that Putin has a high degree of trust in these people,” stated Kolesnikov. 

At the same time, some of the new ministers have long-standing personal ties with new PM Mishustin.

“His former colleagues say that [Mishustin] always tried to help officials with their issues – both personal and work-related. He was always open,”  the deputy general director of Transparency International Russia Ilya Shumanov told Meduza news site. 

For example, the former head of Gazprom Media, now newly instated deputy prime minister Dmitry Chernyshenko, has been friends with Mishustin since their university days.

Other Mishustin colleagues from his time at the tax service also gained deputy prime minister posts, including Dmitry Grigorenko and Alexey Overchuk.

Yet another deputy prime minister, Viktoria Abramchenko, was previously the head of the Russian Federal Service of State Registration, and also worked with Mishustin in the mid-2000s at the Federal Real Estate Cadastre Agency.

Meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin (third from the left) with the members of the new government. Moscow, Russia, January 21, 2020. Photo: Dmiriy Astakhov / POOL

Crimea’s New Curator

One of the new faces to watch in Russia’s new government is the former deputy mayor of Moscow, Marat Khusnullin. He’s also one of the new deputy prime ministers.

In 2010, he was part of Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s team. In Moscow, he managed development and construction, particularly large projects like the reconstruction of a sport complex for the 2018 World Cup, the creation of a park, and metro system construction.

Khusnullin specifically will now be the “curator” of Crimea in the government, according to so-called “head” of the occupied peninsula, Sergey Aksyonov. The previous so-called curator was Dmitry Kozak, who is now a deputy chief-of-staff of the presidential administration. 

READ MORE: What We Know About Russia’s New Top Man for the Donbas

Khusnullin had wanted to gain a management role with relation to Crimea for a long time, according to comments to Krym.Realii (a Crimea service offered by RFE/RL – ed.) by the leader of the Crimean branch of the Russian Communist Party, Leonid Hrach.

“Well it looks like [this government] and the curatorship – are entirely different things,” commented Hrach. He believes that a new face from Moscow will not be able to solve the problems that have accumulated in Crimea. 

“For all this time, dozens of officials – city mayors, Aksyonov’s deputies, ministers – they’ve all gone the route of corruption, and no one is held accountable for anything. We currently have a situation where regardless of who would come, including Khusnullin, they’ll face a broken trough,” explains Hrach.

According to the head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (the representative body for Crimean Tatars – ed.) Refat Chubarov, there are a number of factors that led to Khusnullin’s appointment as a deputy prime minister, one of those being Khusnullin’s own ethnic background, as an emigrant from Tatarstan and an ethnic Tatar himself.

“The fact that [Khusnullin] specifically is seen as the head curator of occupied Crimea to replace Kozak could signal that Moscow doesn’t exclude the possibility of using Khusnullin’s ethnic relation to Crimean Tatars in the service of a counter-propaganda push in different international spaces,” said Chubarov.

Deputy Prime Minister of Russia and ex-deputy mayor of Moscow Marat Khusnullin. Moscow, Russia, December 2, 2019. Photo: Marat Khusnullin / Facebook

The “Ring of Enemies” of the First Deputy Prime Minister

Andrey Belousov, the newly appointed first deputy prime minister, is closely tied to economic matters. In the 1990s, he worked at the Institute of Economic Forecasting of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and in the 2000s, at the The Center for Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-term Forecasting. Then, from 2006 to 2008, he became the deputy minister of the Ministry of Economic Development, then until 2012 was the director of the Finance and Economic Department in the Prime Minister's office. From 2012 to 2013, he became the Minister of Economic Development, and from 2013, he was named as a presidential advisor on economic affairs, the post he held until his current position as the first deputy prime minister.

“All documents and economic offers [presented to the president] stop at [Belousov’s] door,” explained an unnamed government official to The Bell.

Belousov is a born Russian bureaucrat, and believes in the “Circle of Enemies” that surround Russia, the official added. According to him, Belousov was the only economist in the Russian government that supported the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Kolesnikov explained to Novaya Gazeta that the Minister of Finances plays an important role in a system where the budget has priority. And it seems that by naming Belousov to this post, the new government is looking to prioritize economic matters.

“Belousov is a conductor, a supporter of very heavy government involvement in the economy. He truly believes in government investment. This is not a new line, it’s been a part of Putin and the government’s [plan] for many years, but this very much emphasizes the message,” added Kolesnikov.

Regardless of what personnel shifts may occur in the Kremlin, the ministers of Putin’s regime cannot have their own ideas about domestic politics, thinks Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert.

READ MORE: Power Transition or Constitutional Coup: What Russian Government’s Resignation Means

“Even if Putin says that tomorrow, tanks should invade Kyiv, everyone (all the ministers -ed.) will support him,” noted Eggert in a comment to Hromadske.

Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov agrees. In answering a question from Hromadske about whether the new government will impact Ukraine, Gallyamov stats that it will barely matter. “Putin himself sets the Russian course on Ukraine. Everyone else simply implements his will.”

/By Vsevolod Lazutin, Ksiusha Savoskina, and Yana Sedova

/Translated by Romeo Kokriatski