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Russia's prime minister has coronavirus and government sources say he might have permanently lost his position as cabinet head

Source: Meduza
Dmitry Astakhov / pool / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has been diagnosed with COVID-19. The prime minister himself made the announcement during a broadcast conversation with President Putin on April 30. “I just learned that my test results for coronavirus came back positive. In view of this, and in accordance with the requirements implemented by the Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare, I must self-isolate and follow the doctors’ instructions. This is essential to protect my colleagues,” Mishustin told the president. During that conversation, Putin said the government will not make any final decisions about federal economic aid without Mishustin's input and participation.

Mishustin did not offer any details about his condition. On Telegram, without identifying any sources, Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov said that Mishustin is running a fever of 39 degrees Celsius (102.2 degrees Fahrenheit). Despite rumors about his temperature, Mishustin told Vladimir Putin that he plans to remain in contact with the cabinet and the president during his illness. The prime minister's spokesman, Boris Belyakov, says Mishustin is being hospitalized.

During Mishustin’s sick leave, First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov will serve as acting prime minister. Mishustin himself nominated Belousov, noting that the government cabinet will continue normal operations during his absence. Within 30 minutes of Mishustin’s announcement, Vladimir Putin signed an executive order naming Andrey Belousov as acting prime minister.

A source with ties to the federal government told Meduza that it's possible Mishustin won't return to his position as prime minister. Meduza's source points out President Putin used a separate executive order to appoint Andrey Belousov as acting prime minister. Yet, according to Article 8 of Russia's federal constitutional law on government (which Putin cites in his order), no additional documents are required when one of the prime minister's deputies acts as a temporary substitute during a leave of absence. A presidential order to appoint one of the prime minister's deputies as acting prime minister (for a period of up to two months) is only necessary when the current cabinet head has been dismissed. Additionally, the title of Putin's executive order — “On the prime minister's performance of duties” — is missing the word “temporary.” Until now, Russia's president has never appointed an acting cabinet head when the prime minister goes on vacation or medical leave.

A source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that Mishustin will likely take on a different role in the government after recovering from coronavirus. “As a former tax specialist and someone who knows the financial flows, he was appointed for a completely different purpose: to control spending on national projects, when there was still money. The circumstances are totally different now; the economy is totally different because of the pandemic and it needs a jumpstart. This isn't Mishustin's area at all. He didn't make any mistakes. It's just not his time,” says Meduza's source. Another source in the government, however, assured Meduza that Mishustin will return to his duties as prime minister.

There are no official reports indicating who recently come into contact with Mishustin. The prime minister's spokesman, Boris Belyakov, has clarified only that the number of people is small, and that they will now self-isolate and undergo additional testing. According to Meduza's source in the government, most cabinet staff were already working remotely and there were few people inside the prime minister’s direct communication sphere is limited. Recent government meetings have all been conducted virtually, where Mishustin joined the calls from his office at Russia's House of Government, where all employees in the building are tested daily for COVID-19.

Text by Grigory Levchenko

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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