Russia ruling party backs Putin’s PM pick after shock overhaul

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Russia’s ruling party backed President Vladimir Putin’s nomination of a little-known tax chief as the new prime minister on Thursday, after Putin’s announcement of a constitutional shake-up fuelled speculation about his plans.

The lower house of Russia’s parliament is due to formally approve Mikhail Mishustin for the role, a day after the shock resignation of the government after Putin’s call for reforms to reshape Russia’s political system.

The series of bombshell announcements made during and after Putin’s state of the nation speech triggered speculation about his role past 2024, when his current presidential term expires.

Some suggested 67-year-old Putin, who is two years into his fourth presidential term and has steered the country since 1999, could be laying the groundwork to assume a new position or remain in a powerful behind-the-scenes role.

It is unclear whether Mishustin, a technocrat whose recent career revolved around the tax service, is a temporary placeholder or could be groomed as Putin’s successor.

But his approval was imminent after the United Russia party  – which holds 75 percent of seats in the lower house  – gave its backing on Thursday morning.

“We decided to unanimously support the candidature suggested by our national leader for the post of the head of government,” the head of United Russia’s parliamentary faction, Sergei Neverov, told journalists.

Lawmakers are due to discuss and vote on Mishustin’s nomination at a plenary session at 2:00 pm (1100 GMT).

In his state of the nation speech, Putin said he wanted more authority transferred to parliament from the president, including the power to choose the prime minister and cabinet members.

He also called for the power of the State Council, an advisory body, to be expanded and enshrined in the constitution –  adding to conjecture that Putin could take it over after 2024 to preserve power.

Outlining the proposals, which would be the first significant changes to the country’s constitution since it was adopted in 1993, Putin said there was a “demand for change” among Russians.

He was to meet on Thursday with a newly created working group to develop constitutional amendments.

A list of more than 70 names joining the group published by the Kremlin includes conservative public figures as well as celebrities like actor Vladimir Mashkov and pianist Denis Matsuev.

Dmitry Medvedev, prime minister since 2012, announced the resignation of his government soon after Putin’s speech on Wednesday, explaining the move as necessary to remove all constraints from Putin’s reform drive.

He remains acting prime minister until a new head of government takes the reins.

Independent political analyst Maria Lipman said the announcements indicated that Putin wanted to “stay on as number one in the country, without any competitors”.

She said he could be deliberately weakening the presidency before relinquishing the role.

Russia’s opposition also said the proposals indicate Putin’s desire to stay in power.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on Twitter that Putin’s only goal was to “remain the sole leader for life”.

Once 53-year-old Mishustin is appointed he will have a week to propose a new government and ministers.

He told United Russia that some changes in the cabinet would be made but did not elaborate, lawmaker Viktor Vodolatsky told Interfax.

Mishustin, the former head of an investment group who trained as an engineer, has a PhD in economics and has led Russia’s Federal Tax Service since 2010.

He shares Putin’s love for hockey and has been seen at matches with security services officials.

Former opposition lawmaker Gennadiy Gudkov called Mishustin “a new faceless functionary without ambition” who embodies a system that is “detrimental for the economy”.

Medvedev  – who also served as Russian president for four years from 2008  – is expected to stay close to the Russian leader in his new role as deputy head of the Security Council, which Putin chairs.