Russian lawmakers overwhelmingly approved President Vladimir Putin’s nominee for prime minister as part of his surprise overhaul of the country’s political system.
Mikhail Mishustin, the little-known tax chief who Putin handpicked to succeed Dmitry Medvedev, was approved by 383 deputies in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, while 41 deputies abstained in the January 16 vote.
Medvedev and his cabinet resigned a day earlier after Putin used his annual state-of-the-nation speech to call for a referendum on substantial constitutional amendments that he said would strengthen parliament's powers.
The surprise constitutional shakeup could also help keep Putin, who has ruled Russia for more than two decades, in power beyond the end of his term in 2024.
Mishustin told reporters after the vote that he expects to present his new cabinet in the coming days.
“We have all the necessary resources to fulfill the goals set by the president,” he said.
“The president wants the cabinet to spearhead economic growth and help create new jobs. Raising real incomes is a priority for the government," he added.
The approval was widely expected after the ruling party, United Russia, said earlier in the day that it would support Putin’s choice. The party holds three-quarters of the seats in the lower house of parliament.
Mishustin, 53, has worked in the government since 1998 and has been head of the Federal Tax Service since 2010.
The change of government comes after a tumultuous summer that saw some of the largest protests against authorities in the two decades Putin has held power.
Thousands took to the streets in Moscow and other cities to protest a lack of democratic rights and freedoms after several independent and opposition candidates were ruled out of participating in local elections in the autumn.
Many ordinary Russians are also upset over deteriorating economic conditions, prompted in part by international sanctions against the country over its illegal annexation of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and a drop in global oil prices.
"To develop further and ensure further growth of GDP, we need primarily to stimulate the growth of investment...to restore trust that has perhaps been lost between the authorities and business," Mishustin said.
While noting the "huge amount of work" his administration faces, Mishustin said he would be open to "constructive criticism" and that it's “very important for us to hear what is happening" from ordinary Russians.
Observers say that Putin's choice of Mishustin, who lacks any political weight, indicates that the latter will not play an independent role and that the president’s dramatic speech was likely aimed at preparing the ground for 2024, when the 67-year-old must leave the presidency.
Putin has occupied the president or the prime minister's job continuously since 1999 and was reelected in 2018 for a final six-year term under the current constitution.
Announcing the moves in his address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, Putin said the country’s 1993 constitution should be amended, including giving the State Duma the right to name cabinet ministers and the prime minister, a power that currently belongs to the president.
At the same time, Putin said Russia must remain a “strong presidential republic,” with the president retaining powers such as the right to dismiss the prime minister and cabinet ministers, as well as naming top defense and security officials.
Russia last conducted a referendum in 1993 when it adopted the constitution under Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
Putin also suggested tightening the requirements for becoming president, saying any future Russian president should have lived in the country for at least 25 years and have no foreign citizenship or residency.
In addition, he also talked about a constitutional change that would enshrine the priority of domestic legislation over international law.
The speech came with the country still under Western sanctions for its actions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as its election meddling in the United States.
The sanctions have hampered the country's economic growth, leading to rising poverty rates and growing discontent highlighted by protests last summer in Moscow.