The Rocky Road to Replacing Vladimir Putin

The transition to Putin’s constitutionally scheduled replacement as president of Russia may be rougher than currently expected.

Expert comment Published 16 April 2019 Updated 25 April 2019 3 minute READ
Soldiers drill for the Victory Day parade in front of a portrait of Vladimir Putin. Photo: Getty Images.

Soldiers drill for the Victory Day parade in front of a portrait of Vladimir Putin. Photo: Getty Images.

The prevailing assumption outside Russia is that an ordered and stable succession is in prospect when Vladimir Putin leaves the presidency in May 2024, with his replacement being a person of the same stamp. This is however questionable.

Those close to the Kremlin are aging, like Putin. None of them has a glimmer of independent authority within the ruling cabal, not even Igor Sechin, for all his personal ties to Putin and his links to Russia’s security services. None enjoy significant public trust.

Putin’s power would wane once a potential successor (almost certainly a man) began to acquire an aura of presidential favour, however provisionally. That man would have to be accepted by others in the same group as a significant contender. Hopes and fears as to his future intentions would multiply, for Putin, for those still close to the Kremlin and for the wider Russian public.

The ultimate logic of the personalized system that has arisen on Putin’s watch is that only Putin can replace Putin. The 2024 problem could be resolved technically if some pretext is found for Putin to stay on in effective control despite a formal departure from the presidency.

He might, as Nursultan Nazarbayev has just done in Kazakhstan, establish himself as the overall and extraconstitutional commanding mentor to a new president on probation. The possibility of Moscow tightening its grip on Minsk and Putin becoming president of the presently nominal Russia-Belarus Union State is unwelcome to Belarus but once more, it appears, evidently in Russia’s sights. Or Russia’s constitution could be altered, again.

But none of these ruses would do anything to ensure an ordered and stable succession over the longer term.

The overriding interest of the Putin regime is to stay in power. Domestic repression and a perceived need for Russia to defend itself against a continuing threat from the outside world have increasingly dominated Kremlin policies. There are no present signs of economic, social or political adjustments being toyed with in regime circles that might presage more encouraging prospects for Russia’s internal development.

The mix behind the present power structures in Russia remain in force, feeding riches to the state-related privileged, predation on the wider public and resignation among the powerless. The distractions of the Kremlin’s attempts to buttress Russia’s claims to be a Great Power help to bind that mix together.

There was hope in some hearts, in Russia as well as outside it, that Putin would look to his legacy as he started of his present term a year ago, and that he would therefore take steps towards addressing the corrupt stagnation holding back his country. That has proved vain. Putin’s reinstallation in May last year of the government he had worked with since 2012, itself largely a handover from the years before that, said as much from the start.

A successor for 2024–30, imposed by Putin or decided upon from within the present ruling strata, would be unlikely to behave differently, at least until such a new president had been able to secure a degree of personal dominance and charisma comparable to that which Putin has enjoyed in his time. That would be all the tougher to achieve if Putin were still there, in some form or another.

Can Putinism last?

However desirable both domestic and foreign policy change might be, its effective implementation in practice would still be difficult and dangerous for the narrowly based regime and its ‘vertical of power’. Putin has ducked the other part of the dilemma facing the system of governance that has developed over the years – that rejecting such change also carries its difficulties and dangers.

The street protests of 2011–12 were a warning sign that Putin answered in 2012 by repression and nationalist chauvinism. They were provoked in significant part by Putin’s abrupt dismissal in 2011 of the then-president Dmitry Medvedev, whose tentative contemplation of a possibly somewhat more liberal Russia Putin rejected. It is quite possible that if Putin seeks to hold on to ultimate power as 2024 approaches, that process will spark a similar wave of protests.

Putin’s ratings, though enviable by Western standards, were slipping before Russia’s seizure of Crimea in February 2014, but the boost he and his associates then enjoyed has faded since. Trust in Putin personally has dropped significantly over 2018, despite what the outside world often sees as foreign policy successes – for example in Syria – compensating for it.

Familiarity risks breeding contempt. Ordinary Russians have suffered from a decline in their standard of living over the past half a dozen years, and want their rulers to address their domestic problems, which seem currently to take second place, at best.

They have also become nervous –largely because of the regime’s emphasis on the need to guard against Western threats – about the possibility of military confrontation, preferring that the Kremlin should look for a more accommodating approach to the West. State-directed media propaganda has lost its former compelling force, while internet rivals have to date escaped fully effective Kremlin-directed control.

The disturbances of 2011–12 were urban and mainly affected Moscow. Discontent now is more general and troubles a broader range of Russia’s population. United Russia, the party that the Kremlin has relied upon to serve its legislative and federal interests, has lost ground markedly.

While these trends may not last, the belief that somehow or another real but unknown change will happen in the run up to 2024, or after it, is prevalent. There are no effective governmental institutions able to channel popular turbulence should it develop on a serious scale, as it might at some stage without adequate notice, and despite the extent of the security forces at the Kremlin’s command. Shoehorning Putin or a Putin clone into effective office in 2024 will likely be difficult, and its longer run implications threatening.