President Putin fast-tracks effort to extend his rule

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree appointing Mikhail Mishustin as prime minister who addressed MPs on Thursday. (AFP)
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Updated 16 January 2020

President Putin fast-tracks effort to extend his rule

  • Kremlin-controlled lower house approves new PM Mishustin by unanimous vote

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin on Thursday fast-tracked work on constitutional changes that could keep him in power well past the end of his term in 2024 while lawmakers quickly sealed his choice for new prime minister.

Speaking to a working group created to draft constitutional changes, Putin cast his proposals as a way to strengthen parliament and to bolster democracy.

Kremlin critics described the proposed changes as an attempt by Putin to secure his rule for life.

The Russian leader proposed a set of sweeping amendments to the country’s constitution in Wednesday’s state of the nation address. Hours later, he fired Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was prime minister for eight years, and named tax chief Mikhail Mishustin to succeed him.

The Kremlin-controlled lower house, the State Duma, quickly approved Mishustin by a unanimous vote on Thursday.

The reshuffle has shaken Russia’s political elites, who were left wildly speculating about Putin’s intentions and future Cabinet appointments.

FASTFACT

As a career bureaucrat who has been in charge of Russia’s taxes for the past 10 years, Mikhail Mishustin has always kept a low profile and stayed away from politics.

A constitutional reform announced by Putin indicated he was working to carve out a new governing position for himself after his current six-year term ends in 2024, although it remains unclear what specific path he will take to stay in charge.

Putin 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 when his current term ends.

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, tweeted that Putin’s proposals reflected his intention to “rule until he dies.”

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

Speaking to the group tasked with drafting the amendments, Putin emphasized that they are intended to “strengthen the role of civil society, political parties and regions in making key decisions about the development of our state.”

“The role of parliament will grow, and the interaction between parliament and the Cabinet will strengthen,” he said.

At the same time, Putin argued that Russia would not remain stable if it were governed under a parliamentary system. The president should retain the right to dismiss the prime minister and Cabinet ministers, to name top defense and security officials, and to be in charge of the Russian military and law enforcement agencies, he said.

In his address, Putin said the constitution must also specify the authority of the State Council consisting of regional governors and top federal officials.

 

 

Observers speculated that Putin might try to stay in charge by shifting into the prime minister’s seat again after increasing the powers of parliament and the Cabinet and trimming presidential authority.

Others suggested that he could also try to continue pulling the strings as head of the State Council.

Another potential option is a merger with neighboring Belarus that would create a new position of the head of a new unified state. That prospect that has been rejected by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, an autocratic ruler who has been in power for more than quarter century.

Putin said that the constitutional changes need to be approved by a public vote, but officials said it doesn’t imply a referendum and it wasn’t immediately clear how it will be organized.

Upper house speaker Valentina Matviyenko said that lawmakers will rush work on amending the constitution and complete it in the spring.

Observers say that Putin’s move to modify the constitution four years before the end of his term may reflect the Kremlin’s concerns that his popularity may suffer amid stagnant living standards.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2021, but some speculated that an early vote could be held.

Putin has kept his longtime ally Medvedev in his close circle, appointing him to the newly created post of deputy head of the presidential Security Council.

Medvedev served as president in 2008-2012, keeping the seat warm for Putin who continued calling the shots as prime minister when he was forced to step down from the top job due to term limits. Under Medvedev, the constitution was amended to extend the presidential term from four years to six, although it limits the leader to two consecutive terms.

The 53-year-old Mishustin is a career bureaucrat who has worked as the tax chief for the past 10 years, keeping a low profile and showing no political ambitions. He has won a good reputation among experts who praised him for boosting tax collection and streamlining Russia’s rigid tax administration system.

Mishustin vowed to focus on social issues and improve living standards.

“We have all the necessary resources to fulfill the goals set by the president,” he told lawmakers before the vote.

“The president wants the Cabinet to spearhead economic growth and help create new jobs. Raising real incomes is a priority for the government.”


Virus pain easing in Spain, Italy; UK braces for bleak days

Updated 06 April 2020

Virus pain easing in Spain, Italy; UK braces for bleak days

  • The two countries, Italy and Spain, that have suffered more virus deaths than anywhere else in Europe are starting to see their crisis ease
  • Britain’s outbreak was headed in the opposite direction as the country reported more than 600 deaths Sunday

MADRID: A week ago, emergency rooms and intensive care wards in Spain and Italy were overflowing with woozy, coughing coronavirus patients and literally buzzing with breathing machines.
So many died that Barcelona crematories have a waiting list of up to two years, forcing some people to bury loved ones temporarily in cemeteries with the expectation of exhuming them for cremation later on.
But now the two countries that have suffered more virus deaths than anywhere else in Europe are starting to see their crisis ease, while Britain, where the prime minister has been hospitalized, seems headed in the opposite direction.
Between them, Italy and Spain saw nearly 30,000 deaths and 265,000 confirmed infections in the pandemic. They, and other European countries that locked down weeks ago and ramped up testing, are now seeing the benefits.
Britain’s outbreak was headed in the opposite direction as the country reported more than 600 deaths Sunday, surpassing Italy’s daily increase for the second day in a row.
“I think that we are just a week away from the surge of this,” the deputy chief executive of Britain’s NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, told Sky News.
In Spain, deaths and new infections dropped again on Monday. The health ministry reported 637 new fatalities, the lowest toll in 13 days, for a total of over 13,000 dead. New recorded infections were the lowest in two weeks.
Emergency rooms in the hard-hit Madrid region of 6.6 million were returning almost to normal a week after scenes of patients sleeping on floors and in chairs.
Patients awaiting treatment in Madrid-area ERs went down Monday to 390 cases, one-tenth of the arrivals last week, the regional government said. The number of people being treated for coronavirus in intensive care stabilized at about 1,500 for five straight days.
Transport, Mobility and Urban Affairs Minister José Luis Ábalos said the figures show Spain is entering “a new phase of the battle.”
“This new phase does not mean we can let down our guard. We are assessing the measures that we will need to adopt,” Ábalos said.
At the San Carlos Clinic Hospital in Madrid, nearly 15% of the hospital’s 1,400-strong staff contracted the coronavirus, in line with the national average,
“Our priority at the moment is to bring health workers back to work,” said Dr. Julio Mayol, the facility’s medical director.
Still, there are fears for a new outbreak as Spanish authorities begin talking about loosening the grip on mandatory confinement, and the strain on hospitalizations will still be seen for another week while that in intensive care units for another two weeks, Mayol said.
Italy still has, by far, the world’s highest coronavirus death toll — almost 16,000 — but the pressure on northern Italy’s ICUs has eased so much that Lombardy is no longer airlifting patients to other regions.
In the northern city of Bergamo, one of Europe’s virus epicenters, hospital staff were still pulling long, difficult shifts even if the numbers of new patients had eased a bit.
“There has been no reduction in the work,” said Maria Berardelli, a nursing coordinator at Pope John XXIII hospital. “There have been fewer admissions to the emergency room, but our intensive care units are still full, so the activity hasn’t been reduced.”
In a public housing project in the city of Seville, 90-year-old Manuela Jiménez has been confined to her home for more than 20 days. She speaks to neighbors from her window as they deliver food and says she has never seen anything like it, despite having lived through the Spanish Civil War and Second World War.
“Back then my mother would lock me up and I would stay calm but now, look, there is my neighbor and I can’t see her”, says Jiménez.
Illness has been compounded by shocking economic pain as all the world’s largest economies have ground to a halt, including in Italy and Spain. In France, which slightly trails its two neighbors to the south in deaths and infections, the government shut the country down two days after Italy — and has also seen a slight easing.
The UK initially resisted taking some of the tough measures seen in other European countries, which banned large events, shut schools and closed their borders to slow the spread of the COVID-19 illness.
The government’s first advice was that people should wash their hands frequently. As the number of cases soared, the response escalated to include the closure of schools, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops and a nationwide order for everyone but key workers to stay home.
Now, Austria and the Czech Republic are openly discussing how to ease some of the crippling restrictions. Austria’s chancellor said the plan is to let small shops and garden centers reopen next week, with limits on the number of customers inside, and the rest on May 1. The Czech government is proposing an end to the ban on travel abroad as of April 14 and the reopening of small stores.