Nine months ago, when Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced his seemingly eternal number two, then–prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, with a lesser-known bureaucrat, Mikhail Mishustin (see EDM, January 16, 20), few politicians and observers in Moscow took the new head of government seriously. However, since his new appointment, Mishustin, the former director of the Federal Tax Revenue Service, has demonstrated high ambitions and become actively engaged in assembling his own team of loyalists and of honing his image as a prospective national leader.
Though he introduced a number of new taxes as prime minister (e.g., a tax on bank deposits) and increased several others (the flat income tax, fixed at 13 percent since 2001, was bumped up to 15 percent for incomes exceeding five million rubles, or $70,000, per year) (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, June 23), Mishustin’s popular approval ratings are rising. In part, this appears to be because he has been in charge of introducing several modest though seemingly effective economic stimulus packages to offset the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an October 4 poll by WCIOM, 54 percent of Russians trust Prime Minister Mishustin—a figure that is only 13 points lower than President Putin’s and more than double that of any other Russian public figure included in the survey (Wciom.ru, accessed October 14).
Unlike Putin, who generally ignores any critical remarks about himself and fully trusts in the power of his state propaganda, Mishustin meticulously monitors almost every mention of his name in the media and online and reportedly bemoans even the slightest hint of public criticism (Meduza, May 29). Since building up one’s political authority in Russia requires securing media loyalty, the prime minister has already begun to build his own media empire by utilizing his unique powers at the head of the cabinet and attracting a growing number of loyalists around himself.
The most crucial figure in this ongoing project appears to be Dmitriy Cherhyshenko, whom Mishustin met when both men studied at an engineering college in the 1980s. An “effective” media manager who gained notoriety after creating advertising for the infamous MMM Company, the biggest Russian Ponzi scheme of the 1990s, Chernyshenko later served in various government positions, including that of the chair of the organizing committee for the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014. The Russian national Olympic team that year was embroiled (with the involvement of Russian state and security services bodies) in one of the greatest doping scandals in sports history. Later, he was appointed director general of Gazprom-Media and became known as a fierce opponent of Konstantin Ernst, the head of the state-owned Channel 1 television outlet. When Mishustin rose to the post of prime minister of Russia, he named his old friend to be his deputy in charge of the digital economy, media, culture and sport. Enjoying Mishustin’s complete trust, Chernyshenko began to develop a new Russian media holding that could compete with both domestic government television and foreign-audience-oriented outlets like RT. Informed observers opine that Chernyshenko wants to become Russia’s next Alexei Lesin—the legendary media manager who set up the current Russian propaganda machine but later lost his influence, moved to the United States, and was either killed or died of substance abuse in a Washington, DC, Dupont Сircle hotel room in 2015 (Znak, January 28).
The funds needed for the new venture are supposed to be provided by state-owned Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution. In February 2020, control over Sberbank was transferred from the Central Bank of Russia to the Russian State Property Committee—i.e., to the cabinet, which Mishustin now chairs. The deal, previously expected to take almost two years, was suddenly finalized in early April (RBC, April 10). Sberbank’s ambitious president, former Russian economy minister German Gref, has been notably active in developing the financial institution’s digital infrastructure and buying up numerous media assets. In recent months, several top managers of Gazprom-Media, who used to work there under Chernyshenko, were appointed to senior leadership positions in Sberbank (Adindex.ru, July 21). At the same time, Gref declared that his bank was going to allocate up to $500 million to its media projects in the coming years. The move came soon after Sberbank pulled out of several projects it had launched with Yandex BV; both parties split their assets this summer (RIA Novosti, June 24). Hence, one may suppose that Russia’s second-most-popular (after Yandex) web search engine, Rambler, which Sberbank acquired in 2019, will become the centerpiece for the new media group. The sum of $500 million seems about right for creating a large media holding in Russia considering that RT receives around $240 million–$250 million from the Russian government annually.
It is also worth adding that Sberbank, which in fact announced its rebranding this past September—to be called simply SBER (and without mentioning the banking business as the firm’s core activity) (Vedomosti, September 24)—for several years was called by Gref not so much a bank as a “technology company” (Forbes.ru, November 22, 2019). Indeed, it is already engaged in dozens of projects and provides its digital technologies to both the Moscow City Council (Izvestia, December 6, 2019) and the Russian federal government (T.me/SBelkovskiy, September 21, 2020).
Given the fact that in the last decade there were no new ambitious Russian media projects, the most probable scenario for Mishustin’s media expansion is an extensive buyout of the existing outlets—first of all, the ones currently owned by Gazprom-Media (now headed by Alexander Zharov, who is well known in the field but not considered an independent figure) as well as National Media Group (controlled by Putin’s long-time friend Yury Kovalchuk). Gazprom-Media includes NTV and Match! TV channels and Echo Moskvy radio, which has for years been extremely popular with Russia’s intellectuals and could, thus, play a crucial role in promoting the sitting prime minister among Russian “liberals.” National Media Group consists of the newspaper Izvestia, Russian News Service broadcasting holding and REN TV and Channel 5, which mostly cover Moscow and St. Petersburg but possess national reach as well.
Therefore, one may predict another round of asset redistribution in Russia, which, historically, reflects a new attempt at a redistribution of power. That process was to be expected as the new generation of Russian state managers (the label “politicians” is arguably inaccurate since competitive public politics is nearly nonexistent in Putin’s Russia) prepares to take control of the country from those who created the current system.