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Who are Russia’s new cabinet members? Part one: the vice premiers

Source: Meduza

On January 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new executive cabinet proposed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. The appointments were part of a major shakeup in the country’s government that will help determine Putin’s future and the future of Russia’s constitutional system. In this two-part series, Meduza profiles each of the country’s new cabinet members in brief.

First Vice Premier Andrey Belousov

Anatoly Zhdanov / Kommersant

Belousov is an economist from a family of economists. In the 1990s, he worked in the Agricultural Prognosis Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and in the aughts, he developed his own project, the Center for Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-Term Prognoses.

In 2006, then-Economy Minister German Gref appointed Belousov to be his deputy. Two years later, when Vladimir Putin became Russia’s prime minister in a swap with Dmitry Medvedev, Belousov was appointed to Putin’s executive branch as the director of the Economics and Finance Department.

Then, on Putin’s orders, Belousov created the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, which was charged with improving Russia’s investment climate. Belousov currently sits on the Agency’s advisory council along with Putin and Gref.

In 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency, Belousov became Russia’s Economic Development Minister but worked in that post for only a year. During that time, he advocated for increased government investment in infrastructure projects, which he believed would rally the country’s sluggish economic growth. By 2013, Belousov had left cabinet service and returned to Vladimir Putin’s side as a presidential advisor. The newspaper Vedomosti has reported at the time that Putin had such a good opinion of Belousov that even when the latter was working in Dmitry Medvedev’s government, he was considered a member of the president’s team. One federal bureaucrat told The Bell that all economic papers or proposals intended for the president accumulate around Belousov first.

Belousov is a strict statist who believes Russia to be surrounded by “a ring of enemies,” the same government source told The Bell. He added that, among all the members of the administration’s economic bureau, only Belousov supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The government economist’s most widely-discussed initiative of the last few years was a move to seize surplus profits from metallurgy and chemical companies to the tune of more than 500 billion rubles (now $8.07 billion). In a letter addressed to Putin, Belousov wrote that mining companies had made 1.5 trillion rubles ($24.2 billion) in surplus earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) due to a low tax burden and a favorable global market. According to Belousov’s proposal, the list of companies whose surplus profits were to be seized included Nornickel, Sibur, Alrosa, Polyus, and even the financially precarious Mechel — 14 companies in all. The resulting government income was to be allocated toward fulfilling Putin’s “May Orders,” a wide-ranging federal development plan.

According to Vedomosti, Putin allowed the prime minister’s cabinet to work on Belousov’s proposal. The day after the plan became public knowledge, however, nine of the 14 companies on “Belousov’s list” lost a total value of almost 400 billion rubles ($6.5 billion) on the stock market. Belousov believed that businesspeople from the companies themselves had leaked his letter to the press; he called them “fools” and “idiots” in return. The Finance Ministry came out strongly against Belousov’s proposal. Ultimately, the plan was edited so heavily that it became unrecognizable. Not only did the government drop all pretenses toward seizing excess profits from the 14 firms — it considered allocating up to 7 trillion rubles ($113 billion) to bolster their investments.

Vice Premier Marat Khusnullin

Sergey Savostyanov / TASS / Vida Press

The 53-year-old vice premier began his career as a service assistant for manufacturing prototypes at his alma mater, the Kazan Finance and Economics Institute. In the 1990s, he worked in the construction business, and between 2001 and 2010, he led the Ministry of Construction, Architecture, Housing, and Public Utilities in the Republic of Tatarstan. Khusnullin first captured the attention of federal officials in 2005 during Kazan’s 1000-year anniversary celebrations. The very first post-Soviet metro system was installed in Kazan to mark the occasion, and a number of other large construction projects were developed alongside it, including the Kul Sharif Mosque and the Millenium automobile bridge. Khusnullin was also responsible for the 2013 Summer Universiade, which took place in Kazan, though most of the construction for that project had been completed in 2010.

In the fall of 2010, newly elected Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin invited Khusnullin to join his team, where he became the vice mayor for construction. In Moscow, the former Tatarstan official’s major projects included speeding up metro construction by simplifying regulatory standards, reconstructing Luzhniki Stadium in advance of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and building Zaryadye Park.

A number of Khusnullin’s colleagues from Tatarstan moved to Moscow with him. An investigation by Novaya Gazeta found that 46 individuals from Tatarstan occupy leading posts in Moscow’s government construction apparatus as well as agencies and companies controlled by Khusnullin. Six more officials from the region found work in the capital’s finance and city property departments. More than half of those officials (28 out of 52) can rightfully be called members of “Khusnullin’s team” in that they worked with the now-vice premier in Tatarstan or collaborated with him when he was the republic’s construction minister. Meanwhile, companies from Tatarstan have become some of the largest construction contractors in Moscow.

Most construction contracts in the Russian capital are issued not by the construction department itself but by city-government-owned companies, which allows for a simpler auctioning process. For example, Mosinzhproyekt, which is curating the city’s metro construction efforts, also distributed contracts for the Zaryadye project and for World Cup preparations. At the company’s helm is Mars Gaizullin, who previously worked in Tatarstan’s construction ministry. Another state-owned firm, State Construction Management, auctions off contracts for housing development work. It is led by Damir Gazizov, the former head of construction and reconstruction capital management in the Tatar capital of Kazan.

The practice of creating these state-owned conglomerates was also a feature Khusnullin brought in from Tatarstan. There, the government-controlled company Tatstroi ran the contracting process for the republic’s major projects. According to a November 2016 investigative report by the Russian branch of Transparency International, Tatarstroi and two other companies — Vodokanalservis and Tatselzhilkomkhoz — belonged to Khusnullin’s mother, Roza Khusnullina, during his years in Tatarstan’s cabinet. Khusnullina made about 10 billion rubles ($161.5 million) in income on government contracts through those businesses. According to Transparency International, she had also been a British subject since 2005. In an interview with Vedomosti, Khusnullin denied all of the report’s accusations of wrongdoing. He said his mother had never been a British national and that he had carefully investigated and declared his income and property over the previous 15 years.

In November 2019, Marat Khusnullin opened accounts on Twitter and Instagram, which he frequently used to respond rather harshly to criticism from Moscow residents.

Vice Premier Dmitry Chernyshenko

Anatoly Zhdanov / Kommersant

Like Mikhail Mishustin himself, the last new deputy on his list graduated from Moscow State Technological University as a certified engineer and systems technician. The head of a large IT company who has long been an acquaintance of Chernyshenko’s told Meduza that the new vice premier and his new boss have been good friends since their college days.

After graduation, Chernyshenko worked as a programmer for a while and then co-founded a computer graphics studio. That firm ultimately became the Media Arts Group, a communications conglomerate specializing in advertising and sports marketing. Chernyshenko led the group for 12 years until 2005, when he sold his shares in the conglomerate and left to help organize the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He chaired the Sochi 2014 organizing committee and was the deputy chair of the advisory board for the state corporation Olimpstroi, which managed construction projects for the Winter Games.

After the Olympics, Chernyshenko briefly headed up the investment firm Volga Group, which manages the assets of billionaire businessman Gennady Timchenko, and was appointed president of the Kontinental Hockey League created by Vladimir Putin (Timchenko chairs the league’s board of directors). It just so happens that Mikhail Mishustin is also a big hockey fan. Like Putin, he participates in the amateur Nighttime Hockey League, where he and Timchenko often play on the same team.

After a few months working for Timchenko, Chernyshenko was appointed to chair the board of Gazprom Media Holding in early 2015. Gazprom Media owns a number of television channels, including NTV, TNT, and Match TV. Chernyshenko left his role there only when he was appointed to be one of Mishustin’s new deputies.

In March 2014, Vladimir Putin gave Dmitry Chernyshenko the Order of Service to the Fatherland, Second Class, for his contributions to the Sochi Olympic Games. In May 2019, Putin awarded Chernyshenko the Order of Friendship as well.

Profiles by Anastasia Yakoreva, Natalya Gredina, Ivan Golunov, Maria Kolomychenko, Dmitry Kuznets, and Daria Sarkisyan

Translation by Hilah Kohen

Cover photo: Alexey Nikolsky / pool / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA