Federal Tax Service head Mikhail Mishustin’s candidacy for the post of the Russian Prime Minister would have been sensational and completely out of the blue if not for three circumstances.
First of all, rumors have been going on for quite a while that the President is looking for a new prime minister. Other potential candidates included Alexei Kudrin and Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov. Secondly, Vladimir Putin’s decisions are almost always quite unexpected. Thirdly, there have been cases in the past when prime ministers were appointed not from among top-ranking politicians. For example, before his appointment, Mikhail Fradkov served as Russia’s permanent envoy to the European Union. Oddly enough, three out of the four most recent prime ministers in Russia (Kasyanov, Fradkov and Mishustin) have the same first name, Mikhail.
Still, there are a lot of surprises about the new candidate. He is Moscow-born – and Muscovites have not taken up posts so high since Yegor Gaidar. But more importantly, Mishustin is a technocrat in the most precise sense of this word, which is also extremely rare for Russian politics. The good news is that he is not a silovik (an influential figure in law enforcement), nor is he a closest friend or a relative of any of the politicians. This appointment has a relatively rare component for today’s personnel policy, which is respect for the candidate’s qualification. Although perhaps some will disagree that Mikhail Mishustin’s experience is relevant for such an important position.
Originally, Mikhail Mishustin was an IT expert and in this role he started his career at the Federal Tax Service. The tax service and the land cadaster are first and foremost agencies with complex internal administrative procedures whose operation involves managing huge amounts of data, a high level of digitization and system-wide cooperation between local government bodies. A person with this kind of experience could be a perfect head of government if we consider the latter a bureaucratic and administrative rather than a political body.
Thus, we will see a ‘technical’ government and a ‘technical’ prime minister in every sense of the word. Despite the complexity of the tax service organization, the service head does not need to have a comprehensive knowledge of the theory of economic development, foreign policy, people’s wants and needs, or the issues of security and investments. Even the taxes themselves are only interesting for the service in terms of their collection, but not in terms of their influence on the economy and society.
Nobody expects that the former tax service head would be an initiator of bold reforms. The state life and the main development instrument in Russia are currently focused on federal spending, including in the form of national projects. By the way, there are big problems with the application of funds allocated for national projects. Thus, knowing that the future is still quite unpredictable, we can assume that Mishustin’s government will focus on a more efficient and comprehensive administration of state expenditures and at the same time on the further digitalization of the state at all levels in order to turn the government machinery into an integrated information system (and if needed, on finding new budget revenue, which the country’s main tax worker should be able to do).
This might have been the end of our speculations, but there are two more things worth mentioning. First, Mikhail Mishustin’s appointment is another confirmation of the fact that the Finance Ministry is the country’s key political institution. However, the ‘Finance Ministry government’ cannot have any influence on the siloviki.
Secondly, the figure of Mishustin can concentrate political hopes despite his own intentions. He is a Moscow-born, an intellectual, engineer and system designer, Doctor of Economics who knows the work of the state apparatus from the inside, organizer of the most complex administrative procedures – such a person can satisfy the elites, both their liberal and law enforcement parts; many people can dream of such an accommodating successor. To Mishustin himself, such dreams and hopes will do nothing but harm.
By Konstantin Frumkin