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Press review: Putin engineers constitutional change and picks low-profile tax chief as PM

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, January 16

Media: Major constitutional reform proposed by Putin kick-starts power transfer

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement of a series of constitutional changes during his annual State of the Nation Address to the Federal Assembly and the government’s resignation shortly after dominated the headlines in the Russian press on Thursday. The key idea of the proposed amendments is to improve Russia’s state system through the separation of powers between the branches, Vedomosti writes. Russia’s lower house, the State Duma, will mostly benefit from the anticipated changes. Putin suggested that Russian lawmakers should approve the prime minister as well as all deputy prime ministers and ‘civil’ ministers proposed by the premier, while the president will have to appoint them. However, Russia will remain a strong presidential republic since the head of state will retain his right to outline the tasks and priorities of the government, sack the premier and ministers and will also directly control the security agencies. In addition, the president will be able to serve no more than two terms, and the word "consecutive" will be removed from the clause in the Constitution.

No doubt, a power shift has kicked off in Russia, but the particular changes and their consequences will become clear as soon as the text of the constitutional amendments is written down, Dmitry Badovsky, the head of a non-profit foundation, the Institute for Social, Economic and Political Studies, told Vedomosti.

Putin is seeking to create a structure that would operate for a lengthy amount of years to come, including without his personal participation, Head of the Civil Society Development Foundation Konstantin Kostin said. "This is like a chess game: he is making room for more chess moves by 2024. But it is too early to speak about the final configuration now." Political scientist Alexander Kynev believes that the proposed measures signal that a power transfer in Russia could be carried out along a modified Kazakh scenario, with the separation of functions between top officials, the State Council and the Constitutional Court.

Experts told Kommersant that the upcoming changes may be linked to the 2024 presidential elections, and Putin is likely to decide against running. A source close to the Kremlin believes that by 2024 Putin is expected to lead the ruling party, which will have control over the government while the next president will have to take this into account. The source did not rule out that Putin could move to the State Council or the Security Council. "Everything depends on how the powers that the president has mentioned will be changed," he said.


Media: Putin picks tax chief as new prime minister

The news on Wednesday that the Russian government will resign came like a bolt from the blue, Izvestia writes. Russian President Vladimir Putin nominated the little-known head of the Tax Service Mikhail Mishustin as the country’s prime minister. On Thursday, Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, is likely to approve the nomination. The United Russia Party, the Communist Party and A Just Russia Party are ready to back the candidate, Izvestia writes. The rest of the cabinet will be formed after Putin meets with the acting ministers. Sources in the United Russia Party said that despite his resignation, Dmitry Medvedev could retain the post of party leader. According to experts, the surprise shake-up could have been triggered by launching a reset of the Russian political system and the upcoming power shift.

Political analyst Konstantin Kalachev believes that Putin’s decision to pick Mishustin as the new premier is related to his political neutrality, and he is also known in the business and corporate community. Meanwhile, the new head of the government is unlikely to become Putin’s successor.

All officials interviewed by Vedomosti have described the choice as a surprise but a good one. Taxation is the only sector that has demonstrated a breakthrough in Russia’s state administration. The Russian Tax Service is one of the best in the world in terms of collecting taxes and developing technologies, an official linked to the financial system said. Mishustin is known in the government as a good administrator and his service was a lifesaver during the crisis, a high-ranking official said.

Now Mishustin will be tasked with fulfilling Putin’s economic program, namely the National Projects to the tune of 26 trillion rubles ($424 bln) up to 2024. The program’s slow implementation and weak economic growth were among the reasons Medvedev’s government came under fire, the paper says. Mishustin’s major achievement is turning the tax-collecting agency into a service tool, said Partner at Taxology Alexei Artyukh. He reformed the administration of major taxpayers and businesses can coordinate deals in advance in exchange for the Tax Service’s access to companies’ accounting systems. If these approaches are extended to other services, this would result in huge progress, he said.


Izvestia: Impeachment crusade against Trump enters final stage

The Democrats continue to suffer losses over the impeachment effort that has not stopped US President Donald Trump from gaining ground. According to analysts interviewed by Izvestia, the impeachment expectations by Trump’s opponents do not live up to reality. In order to save face, the Democrats will insist on questioning new witnesses during the trial in the Senate, for example ex-National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was present during Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky. However, even if new evidence emerges, the US leader will be justified by his fellow party members. The only question is how long the trial in the Senate will last.

The Senate-led impeachment trial for Trump is expected to start on January 21, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. Opinion polls show that the share of Trump’s impeachment supporters and opponents is nearly the same. According to Edward Lozansky, President of the American University in Moscow, Trump’s positions would have been stronger if Washington had not carried out the Baghdad airport drone strike assassinating Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani. The US leader could have lost several points because some of his voters value his promises to end all wars started by his predecessors, the expert noted.

"They obviously disliked the Iranian gamble, which could trigger a new war, and this has affected the latest opinion polls. However, ahead of the first primaries in Iowa, 91% of Republicans are still against impeachment," he said.

According to Anders Aslund, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, everything is not going the way the Democrats had sought. They apparently expected that Trump would lose ground among the Republicans, but this failed to occur.

Next week it will become clear whether the Senate plans to question witnesses. In case some Republican senators push for this, some "devastating" things could occur, according to the expert. However, he believes that it is very unlikely that former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton will testify.

Lozansky notes that if more compromising materials emerge during the trial, this could hurt Trump. However, there is still a chance that the Trump impeachment trial won’t take place if the Republicans vote for rejecting all the accusations by the House of Representatives, he said.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: New US ambassador to Russia destined to mirror Trump’s predicament

Washington’s new Ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, is due to arrive in Moscow on Thursday. The US Embassy said its new chief hopes to boost cooperation with Russia. However, Sullivan’s good intentions could be derailed by Washington, experts told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Sullivan has vowed to focus on US-Russian cooperation in combating terrorism. Among other priorities, the diplomat named cooperation in arms control, security in the Arctic and sexual minorities’ rights.

"Obviously, John Sullivan seeks to reanimate, revitalize and breathe new life into a stalled bilateral Russian-US dialogue. But there must be the understanding that his possibilities will be very limited," Director of the Institute of the USA and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Valery Garbuzov told the paper.

According to the commentator, the US envoy’s activity will be limited due to the sanctions war that the US political elite has been waging against Russia since the Ukrainian crisis started in 2014.

"Sullivan’s good intentions will be blocked regardless of his will. In a certain sense, he is doomed to involuntarily mirror the behavior of Trump, whose rhetoric is pro-Russian rhetoric but his steps are anti-Russian," the expert noted. Sullivan’s predecessor Jon Huntsman also sincerely wished to improve bilateral ties, but he failed to do so.

Currently, the 2020 presidential campaign in the US is in full swing and this is not the best time for any attempts to start mending Russian-US relations, the paper says.


Izvestia: Berlin conference unlikely to reconcile Libya’s warring parties

The upcoming Berlin-hosted conference on Libya is unlikely to be a major success as Khalifa Haftar, the defiant Commander of the Libyan National Army, won’t cool off until he gains control over the entire country, experts interviewed by Izvestia said. According to Russian diplomatic sources, Moscow doubts that Germany will be able to reconcile the two rival Libyan groups, especially since Tobruk announced on January 15 that fighting in the country’s east had resumed. The major issue is whether regional states are ready to accept the fact that Libya will be fully controlled by Haftar.

"The success of talks in Berlin on January 19 will depend on those steps that the sides will take before this date. In Moscow, both parties actually announced their intentions, pointing out what needs to be done," expert at the Russian International Affairs Council Maxim Suchkov said. In this situation, it is more advantageous for Russia to back one party and act as its broker.

Even if Tripoli and Tobruk come to terms in Berlin, it is very unlikely that the two Libyan groups will achieve a long-lasting ceasefire deal since no matter what Haftar will keep his finger on the trigger, said Giuseppe Dentice, an associate fellow at Italy’s think tank, the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).

Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, believes that the talks in Berlin will be a fiasco. Haftar’s allies, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, have untied his hands and now the field marshal won’t stop until he gains control over all of Libya. At a certain point, this scenario could satisfy the Europeans, the expert said. For many EU countries, a stable Libya under a tough dictator is more preferable than an unstable but transparent republic, he explained.


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