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World

Putin Consolidates Power After Russian Government Ministers Resign

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When it comes to the Russian government, there's really only one name that counts. Of course we're talking about President Vladimir Putin. So even though, as of today, Russia has a new prime minister, it's still really all about Putin. We've got NPR's Lucian Kim with us from Moscow to explain what's happening there. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. The entire Russian government resigned. Can you just explain what is happening? Explain the changes that apparently Putin is proposing.

KIM: Sure. I think it's good to look at sort of the sequence of events. I mean, Putin yesterday delivered his annual state of the nation address, and he said there were a lot of urgent changes that he wanted to implement - changes to the Constitution. Just a few hours later, the whole Russian Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, unexpectedly resigned. And then - if that wasn't surprising enough, Putin then nominated the head of the tax service as the new prime minister.

So in some ways, it looks like the news is the Russian government resigns. But I would...

MARTIN: Right.

KIM: ...I think the real news is Putin lays the groundwork for staying in power indefinitely.

MARTIN: Huh - OK. So let's talk more about this first. A name you just said is going to be familiar to some people - Dmitry Medvedev. He used to be the president, and then he was the prime minister. And now he's out.

KIM: Well, first of all, he's very unpopular. And in some ways, he's scapegoat No. 1 for all the economic hardship that Russians face today. So you know, Putin, by getting rid of Medvedev, maintains a certain aloofness as the leader in charge of the way Russia is seen in the rest of the world. Medvedev here is taking the fall for Putin, and it also helps Putin make the - sell the point that something is actually changing in Russia.

What's interesting about Medvedev's fate is he's going to be called - named the deputy head of Russia's - the Russian Security Council. What's surprising is this job doesn't even exist formally, so it kind of shows there has been some hastiness and there's an element of surprise in this. There's a lot of speculation, of course, what this new position for Medvedev means. Does this mean he's being retired for good? Or does it mean that he's just being kind of put in this holding position so that Putin can, you know, kind of pull him out later if he needs him in a few years?

MARTIN: And it was widely understood that even when he was president, it was Putin who was really pulling the strings.

KIM: Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: What more can you tell us about the person who is the new prime minister?

KIM: Well, his name is Mikhail Mishustin. This is not at all a household name. I think even just yesterday, most Russians would not have been able to tell you who he is. He is seen as a technocrat. He has a reputation as a good manager. And really, he's implemented one of the successful changes in Russia. He's made the Russian tax service one of the most advanced in the world. He's done that by bringing digital technology to tax collection. I think what's also significant is his name is not well-known, and so this is not some ambitious highflier.

MARTIN: So the question is, how much is this really going to change how Russia is run? I mean, Putin was in charge before. Now the government's changed. Putin is still in charge.

KIM: Well, if the Russian stock market or the exchange rate of the Russian ruble are any kind of indication, the market is not at all worried. The fundamentals of Russian governance aren't changing. Putin has only shown quite clearly how he plans to stay in power. In many ways, what's happening now should be looked at as sort of a technical adjustment. Everybody expected Putin to stay in power, and now he's sketching out how he will do it.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Lucian Kim from Moscow. Thank you. We appreciate it.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.