New PM Mishustin Enjoys 50% Approval as Russians are Split on Goal of Reforms, but Support Individual Proposals; Putin Continues Cleaning House – Dismisses Regional Governor for Humiliating Local Firefighter & Other Disturbing Behavior

A recent Levada Center poll shows that about half of Russians approve of the new PM Mikhail Mishustin. This reflects a clear improvement over Russians’ views of the former PM Dmitry Medvedev, according to BBC Monitoring:

The poll published on the Levada site on 30 January reported that some 48 per cent of respondents said they liked the “first activities” of Mishustin as prime minister. A further 37 per cent said they did not approve, and 15 per cent did not give an answer.

When asked the same question in December 2019 about the actions of then prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, 38 per cent of respondents said they approved and 61 per cent said they were not in favour.

The real test of Mishustin’s popularity will come over the next year or so during which Russians will be looking at their standard of living and pocketbooks. The Financial Times reported yesterday that decisions on budget spending will be decided on next week:

Russia’s 2020 state expenditure could swell by more than Rbs 2tn ($32bn), equivalent to around 1.3 per cent of GDP, analysts have estimated, if the amendments are approved. That would be on top of an already agreed Rbs19.5tn spending blueprint, helped by cash from an oil-fuelled national wealth fund that has swollen to $125bn….

…Real incomes in Russia have fallen for five of the past six years as Mr Putin’s administration prioritised tight state spending and the building up of a fiscal safety net that helped Moscow weather the brunt of western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea….

…Andrei Belousov, a pro-spending former Kremlin aide who was promoted to the powerful role of first deputy prime minister in the new government, said on Wednesday that additional capital had been approved for the initiative. He described the budget changes as “a serious injection of liquidity into the economy.”

Mr Belousov, who is seen by investors as the embodiment of Mr Putin’s new-found desire for stimulus, said that the government estimated Rbs300bn could be spent from the national wealth fund each year without affecting inflation, a key concern to more hawkish ministers under the previous government who had argued against spending the fund’s proceeds domestically.

Another Levada poll showed that Russians are about evenly split on the goal of Putin’s recent proposed constitutional changes. Russian news agency Interfax reported:

Forty-seven percent of the respondents polled by Levada said that the constitutional amendments were aimed at improving the public governance system for the benefit of most residents, and the same percentage argued that the amendments served the interests of the incumbent president, who wished to broaden his power and to stay in office after 2024.

A state-backed poll that was reported on by TASS in early February breaks down Russians’ views regarding the proposed changes in more detail. With respect to the amendments involving social benefits, an overwhelming majority of Russians were supportive:

The poll results indicated 91% of Russians applauded the initiative to have regular cost-of-living adjustments to pensions and other monetary benefits for inflation enshrined in the Constitution. Some 90% of respondents welcomed the initiative to set the minimum wage no lower than the subsistence level.

Proposed changes that tighten citizenship and residency requirements on office-holders was very popular:

Some 87% of those polled approved the idea to raise the residency qualification for Russian presidential candidates from 10 to 25 years. The idea to grant the Constitutional Court the power to check bills at the president’s request was supported by 81% of the survey’s respondents.

Provisions allowing for the Constitutional Court to review proposed legislation for legality beforehand also received overwhelming support, according to BBC Monitoring’s reporting on the same poll:

…. Eighty-one per cent of respondents described as “rather positive” the amendment allowing the president to refer bills passed by the State Duma to the Constitutional Court and veto them if they are found to contravene the constitution.  

Meanwhile Putin has reiterated that the Russian people will vote on the proposed changes. He further stated that, depending on how the vote goes, he can sign or not sign the changes into law. The AP reported Putin’s comments at the end of January:

“It is necessary that people come to the polling stations and say whether they want the changes or not, ” Putin said at a meeting with municipal officials in a Moscow suburb.

“Only after the people speak out, I will either sign or not sign” the amendments into law, Putin added.

Putin continued to clean house in recent weeks when he dismissed the regional governor of Chuvashia, Mikhail Ignatyev. Ignatyev was first expelled from the United Russia party on January 29th, then Putin fired him the following day, citing “loss of confidence.” Putin appointed State Duma deputy Oleg Nikolaev as the interim governor.

Ignatyev had engaged in a pattern of disturbing behavior, including stating publicly on January 18th that journalists critical of the government should be “wiped out” – comments condemned by his Russian colleagues as well as the UN and OSCE. Shortly after, a video emerged of Ignatyev dangling a set of keys to a fire engine above the head of a firefighter, forcing him to jump up and down to retrieve them. According to The Moscow Times, Ignatyev tried to mitigate the fallout, but both colleagues and authorities higher up weren’t having it:

The Chuvash administration’s press service and the regional fire department defended Ignatyev’s latest actions as a “friendly joke,” saying the jumping firefighter is the governor’s longtime acquaintance. Ignatyev also apologized for using the phrase “wipe out” in reference to journalists and said his words had been “distorted.”

One Russian analyst quoted by Vesti News said that particularly in a region like Chuvashia, which is relatively low-income, such behavior by the governor makes it look like he is out of touch and sees himself as a king.

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