New Russian Cabinet: staff "revolution"
instead of structural reforms?

January 31, 2020
On January 21, 2020, President Putin approved the structure of the new Russian Government and appointed Deputy Prime Ministers and federal Ministers. New Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin was appointed on January 16.

What are the key specifics of the new Cabinet?

The key specific feature of the new Russian Cabinet is that while the structural changes are minimal, the staff reshuffles proved to be radical, both in terms of the number of new people appointed to top offices and change of political status of key Cabinet members (how close they are to the President).

This is an extremely atypical decision for Putin, compared to previous Cabinets over the entire period of his stay in power. Earlier, as a rule, the Cabinets included influential figures close to the President and personally associated with him, and a system of checks and balances between different elite groups existed.

But at the same time, the decision to change the approach to the Cabinet appointments is logical in the context of a broader presidential "staff policy" over recent years - the so-called "technocratisation" of power (the appointment of young "technocratic" governors, the penetration of such figures into Medvedev's second Cabinet, the appointment of the head of the Presidential Administration, a "technocrat" Anton Vayno during the Parliamentary election campaign in 2016 and the launch of "Leaders of Russia" contest in order to select and train a "succession pool" for the top positions in the federal and regional civil bureaucracy).

The new government is characterised by a lack of clear connections of its key members with the elite groups or members of the President's inner circle, and looks less fragmented than the previous ones, even despite its members potentially differing in their personal views on the economic policies and measures needed to revive economic growth.

On January 21, 2020, President Putin approved the structure of the new Russian Government and appointed Deputy Prime Ministers and federal Ministers. New Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin was appointed on January 16.

What are the key specifics of the new Cabinet?

The key specific feature of the new Russian Cabinet is that while the structural changes are minimal, the staff reshuffles proved to be radical, both in terms of the number of new people appointed to top offices and change of political status of key Cabinet members (how close they are to the President).

This is an extremely atypical decision for Putin, compared to previous Cabinets over the entire period of his stay in power. Earlier, as a rule, the Cabinets included influential figures close to the President and personally associated with him, and a system of checks and balances between different elite groups existed.

But at the same time, the decision to change the approach to the Cabinet appointments is logical in the context of a broader presidential "staff policy" over recent years - the so-called "technocratisation" of power (the appointment of young "technocratic" governors, the penetration of such figures into Medvedev's second Cabinet, the appointment of the head of the Presidential Administration, a "technocrat" Anton Vayno during the Parliamentary election campaign in 2016 and the launch of "Leaders of Russia" contest in order to select and train a "succession pool" for the top positions in the federal and regional civil bureaucracy).

The new government is characterised by a lack of clear connections of its key members with the elite groups or members of the President's inner circle, and looks less fragmented than the previous ones, even despite its members potentially differing in their personal views on the economic policies and measures needed to revive economic growth.

This general framework defines the following features of the new Cabinet:

  • Technocratism. Many new appointees made a career in the public service starting from low ranks, and their growth is the result of their bureaucratic efficiency (the ability to fulfill the tasks within the framework of the political course and their personal powers), rather that the support of their "patrons".
  • Full "depoliticisation". Former PM Medvedev chaired the pro-presidential United Russia party and is considered to be among the candidates to become Putin's successor. In the new Cabinet, neither the Prime Minister nor any other leading figures could qualify as potential successors.
  • Relatively high operational autonomy. Compared to the previous Cabinet, the new one has a higher credit of trust from the President and will probably have greater autonomy in making decisions that are mostly within the Government's competence (financial, social and economic policies).
  • Despite being formed at the start of the political transition process, the Cabinet could become long-serving and its current composition could survive both the State Duma election and potentially the next Presidential election (particularly in case of early elections).
  • The Cabinet (except for the national security/foreign affairs bloc) does not include figures connected to Putin since the 1990s, nor those who worked with him once he got his first federal appointment in 1997

Some other remarkable features of the new Cabinet are as follows:

  • High influence of people with tax backgrounds. Prime Minister Mishustin was able to ensure the appointment of two his former deputies from the Federal Tax Service to the offices of Deputy PMs, including the Head of the Government Executive Office. Apart from that, the team responsible for the tax & customs policy in the Ministry of Finance also got promotions - the relevant Deputy Minister of Finance was appointed Deputy Head of the Government's Executive Office in charge of law-making activities and the head of Tax & Customs Policy Department of the Ministry was promoted to the office of State Secretary - Deputy Minister.
  • First Deputy PM Andrey Belousov, by his political weight and status in the new Cabinet, could play the role of "second Prime Minister". Belousov could maintain autonomy in relation to PM, as he has direct access to the President and could potentially use this ability, counter-balancing PM Mishustin.

    The appointment of Belousov as an ideologist of "national projects" and a person now in charge of their implementation and Mishustin as a "fiscal" technocratic PM responsible for public administration improvement and tougher control over the increased public expenditures also has a logic. The improvement of public administration at the federal level and control over budget spending is a necessary pre-condition for achieving Belousov's policy of re-launching economic growth through increase public investments.

    At the same time, PM Mishustin also has significant bureaucratic resources and was able to bring his own team to the Government. Mishustin "took control" over the Government's Executive Office and secured the appointment of several people close to him (not only from the ranks of the Federal Tax Service) to the offices of Deputy Prime Ministers.

    In the future, the relatively equal status of Mishustin and Belousov could become the main conflict line in the Cabinet.

  • Importance of the regional factor (many members of the new Cabinet - both Deputy PMs and federal Ministers - come from the regional bureaucracy or have been recommended by the governors of key regions - first of all Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin.
  • Strengthening the position of "social" Deputy PM Tatyana Golikova: in fact, the President entrusted her with reorganising the structure of social ministries/agencies and changing their senior management.
  • Full reshuffle of the "digital" bloc of the Cabinet, but unlike the "social bloc", it will not have a clear "leader", since Prime Minister Mishustin, First Deputy PM Belousov and newly-appointed Deputy PM Dmitry Chenyshenko will be directly involved in the digital agenda.
  • The Presidential Administration will maintain an important role in monitoring and coordinating the Government's activities, particularly in law-making, economic policy, foreign trade & EAEU agenda, since some former Cabinet members got appointments in the Presidential Administration and will have regular access to the President (please see below).

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