Mikhail Mishustin, the man likely to be Russia’s next prime minister, is a little-known figure to the wider public

Move prompted speculation that Putin could be eyeing a return to the premiership after his current term ends

When Vladimir Putin

with a low profile technocrat on Wednesday, it shocked some top officials and fuelled speculation that the Russian president was moving to extend his grip on power beyond the end of his term in 2024.

Putin gave little public explanation for the dramatic and unexpected upheaval, which saw Medvedev, one of his most loyal lieutenants, ousted after nearly eight years in office. Medvedev became premier in 2012 after stepping down as president to make way for Putin’s return to the Kremlin.

Replacing him is Mikhail Mishustin who has headed the country’s tax service for a decade – a surprise choice given that he has almost no political profile.

The Kremlin-dominated lower house of parliament, which rarely opposes Putin on important issues, was due to decide whether to approve Mishustin on Thursday.

Mishustin, 53, has worked in government roles related to tax collection since the early days of his career.

He has been praised for streamlining the service formerly notorious for red tape, mountains of paperwork and long queues.

Like Putin, Mishustin enjoys ice hockey. He reportedly speaks several foreign languages.

But Mishustin’s name had not appeared in many lists of potential candidates for the post.

“Mishustin does not have any political experience or popularity with the electorate, and is not part of Putin’s inner circle,” Tatiana Stanovaya, Non-resident Scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, wrote on social media.

She said Mishustin would be unlikely to run in the presidential election due when Putin’s fourth term ends in 2024, adding: “(It) seems highly likely that Mishustin is just a technocratic place holder”.

Russia has had technocrats as prime minister before, including when Putin was cementing his grip on power after 2000.

“(Mishustin) looks a lot like the technocratic premiers … of the early 2000s,” Stanovaya said.

Putin, now 67, has been in power longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader since Josef Stalin, who led from 1924 until his death in 1953. Under the current law, Putin must step down in 2024 after his term ends.

On Wednesday in his state-of-the-nation speech, Putin also suggested diminishing the powers of the presidency and strengthening those of the prime minister.

Putin suggested amending the constitution again to allow lawmakers to name prime ministers and Cabinet members. The president currently holds the authority to make those appointments.

“It will increase the role of parliament and parliamentary parties, powers and independence of the prime minister and all Cabinet members,” Putin told an audience of top officials and lawmakers.

Alexei Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition leader, tweeted that Putin’s speech clearly signalled his desire to continue calling the shots even after his presidential term ends.

“The only goal of Putin and his regime is to stay in charge for life, having the entire country as his personal asset and seizing its riches for himself and his friends,” Navalny said.

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said that Putin intends to stay in charge while redistributing powers between various branches of government.

“Such a model resembling the Chinese one would allow Putin to stay at the helm indefinitely while encouraging rivalry between potential successors,” Rogov observed.

In 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping had term limits abolished, which would effectively keep him in power for life. Putin appears to favour more intricate ways of staying in charge than abolishing term limits.

Dmitry Gudkov, another opposition politician, said Putin, re-elected last year for his fourth term, had decided to rearrange everything around him now rather than wait until closer to 2024.

“Constitutional coups like this occur and are completely legal,” wrote Gudkov.

Medvedev was expected to stay close to the Russian leader, transitioning to a role as deputy head of the country’s Security Council, which Putin chairs.

“He remains what he’s always been: (Putin’s) alter ego,” tweeted head of Carnegie Moscow Centre Dmitry Trenin, suggesting Medvedev could be being groomed as the next president.

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