Why did the entire Russian government just resign?

There has been a power shift from the hands of former president and prime minister Dmitriy Medvedev into the hands of Mikhail Mishustin. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

On 15 January, the Russian Federation saw some seismic changes in its politics, expressed Big Brother-like by Putin’s face on giant city screens, broadcasting his state of the nation address. The country’s government resigned, Russia is set to have a new prime minister, and Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord of the Chechen Republic, has been off-duty for more than 24 hours.

What just happened and what does it mean for the country?

1. The government resigned

This sounds dramatic – but even though the Russian government has resigned, it will continue to act as a placeholder until a new government is formed. It did not resign as an act of protest, but rather to facilitate the political changes being made in an orchestrated, planned manoeuvre while a significant power shift takes place.

2. Out with Medvedev, in with Mishustin

Firstly and most importantly, Wednesday saw a power shift from the hands of a former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, into the hands of Mikhail Mishustin.

I say “power” shift here, but Medvedev held little real power: as prime minister, he has been highly subservient to President Vladimir Putin. Even when Medvedev served as president, a role which he occupied 2008 to 2012, it was widely understood that he acted as a placeholder for Putin before he returned to the presidency.

The lower house of Russia’s parliament approved Mishustin as the new prime minister at Thursday lunchtime. Like Putin, he started his career without obvious political aspirations, as something of a background character, and nobody expected his appointment. The 53-year-old has been the head of the tax service since 2010, and so brings a degree of technological specialisation.

But before Wednesday, Mishustin didn’t even have an English-language Wikipedia page. And in the English language, only one major article exists on Mishustin, written by Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times who noted a “highly unusual spike in readership for an article that was over six months old”.

However, Mishustin may well be just another placeholder, even as the powers of the prime minister see something of an increase. He seems unlikely to take the reins as president after Putin steps down.  

Poor, rich Medvedev, forever the fall guy for the Putin regime. In the past couple of years he has been a wildly unpopular figure, shouldering the blame for wealth inequality in Russia with his duck house and expensive sneakers. He symbolises the deluge of domestic issues that befall the average Russian, such as waste management and pension issues, despite having little control over them. He will now take the position of deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, a significant step-down.

3. The proposed constitutional changes

Putin also announced unprecedented constitutional changes on Wednesday, some of which limited the power of the future presidency. Previously, the constitution stipulated that no Russian president could serve more than two consecutive terms (hence Medvedev’s placeholder status in 2008-2012). Now, the Russian president may only serve two terms in total.

Putin essentially used his speech to diminish the powers of the presidency, with parliament being granted a new authority to appoint ministers. This suggests that, after 2024 the new Russian president may have to be accountable to someone or somebody – perhaps the State Council which could be assuming a more pivotal role in the future. This currently fairly unimposing institution could see Putin at its helm after being granted these increased powers.

The proposed constitutional amendments also prevent people who hold a foreign passport from running for president. This rules out a significant cohort of wealthy Russians with a second citizenship.

4. To beard or not to beard?

Both beards and head hair both play a striking role in Russian political history. From Peter the Great’s “Beard Tax” at the end of the 17th century (it’s exactly what it sounds like), Russians and the Soviet regime have held a slightly superstitious tradition of electing men with specific hair lengths, on either their face or head. The reversed pattern runs: Bald/hairy/bald/hairy.

If we see Putin as “bald” (I like to) and Medvedev and Yeltsin as “hairy”, this means the next Russian president, according to superstition, must have a thick head of hair too.

Mishustin does not have this. So, by those old rules, Mishustin is not placed to become Putin’s successor as president despite assuming the PM position. Putin’s next heir must have hair.

5. What happened to Kadyrov?

It is unlikely that Ramzan Kadyrov, the aforementioned Chechen warlord, had anything to do with the events that unfolded – if anything, he was inserting himself into the dialogue against Kremlin wishes.  

Kadyrov’s office reported his “temporary incapacitation” this week, entrusting “chairman of the government of the Chechen Republic, Muslim Magomedovich Khuchiyev with carrying out the duties of the head of the Chechen Republic”. This fuelled many unlikely (and possibly jovial) rumours that Kadyrov would be playing a key role in the new government.

However, his Instagram account remained active over the period, and on Thursday a local deputy clarified that he had only “minor health issues”. Sorry, everyone.

Aliide Naylor is the author of ‘The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front’, released via I. B. Tauris in January 2020.