The outcome of Russia’s presidential election on March 18 is a foregone conclusion: the incumbent, Vladimir Putin, will win after garnering 5-6 times more votes than the second-place candidate.
Elections in Russia today are no more fair, free, or competitive than in Soviet times. The only difference is that only one candidate was on the ballot back then, whereas nowadays there are several, to make the exercise seem more credible. Another certainty about the upcoming election is that Putin will once again reincarnate himself, as he has done four times already. His earlier rebirths came in late October 2003, after the arrest of the now-exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then in 2004, when another new-model Putin emerged for that year’s election. After the 2008 election, Putin had to find ways to manage Russia’s newly elected president, Dmitry Medvedev. And then in 2012, a belligerent Putin – the one who would later invade Ukraine – rallied his supporters on Moscow’s Poklonnaya Gora plaza, overcame mass protests, and returned to the presidency.
Despite his knack for transformation, Putin is unlikely to introduce any substantive policy reversals after his coming victory. Bold, comprehensive reforms of the type proposed by the liberal former finance minister Alexei Kudrin are not in the cards. Putin is an old dog; he will not learn new tricks.
To predict what Putin might do in his next term in office, consider five trends that have defined Russia during his 18-year rule. The first is escalation of political and military confrontation with the West, which has turned Russia into a rogue state that threatens its neighbors. The second is a gradual consolidation of power in the hands of a small circle of elites, who have replaced the bureaucracy, parliament, and judiciary as Russia’s ultimate decision-makers.
A third trend is growing reliance on the use of force, particularly on the part of the secret police, in political life. With little or even no evidence, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, may now jail federal ministers, regional governors, opposition leaders, theater directors, environmental activists, or ordinary Russian citizens who express political views on Twitter or Facebook.
It is unclear what kind of relationship Medvedev or Rogozin would have with the FSB, or whether either man could ensure the secret police’s non-interference in the country’s post-Putin political life
A fourth, and related, trend is the restriction of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, including voting rights and rights of expression and assembly. And a final trend is the gradual erosion of property rights, which has left Russian businessmen unwilling to invest in the country.
All of these negative trends will persist, even if the pace of decline is debatable. Putin’s reelection almost certainly means another six years of economic stagnation and international isolation. He may speak about the need for reform; but after nearly a generation in power, his words can no longer be trusted. To divine his intentions and future policies requires focusing on his actions – what he does, not what he says. In my view, there are four plausible scenarios.
First, Putin would seek to position himself as president for life, by holding a referendum to eliminate the constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms. Or he could be elected as the president of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, with Belarus’s current president, Alexander Lukashenko, serving as prime minister. The Union State has been dormant since 1997, but it could be revived to serve Putin’s purposes.
In the second scenario, Putin would become a Russian Deng Xiaoping. He would acknowledge that Russia’s current political model is unsustainable, and convene a “roundtable” of representatives from around the country to come up with a framework for a new system. The delegates could establish rules for a transitional period comprising the last two years of Putin’s presidency, after which Russia would enter a new political era.
Or, like Boris Yeltsin before him, Putin might declare himself exhausted and nominate a successor. In the third scenario, that successor might be a liberal like Medvedev, whereas in the fourth scenario, it would be a conservative like Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who currently oversees the defense industry.
In these last two scenarios, it doesn’t really matter whether the successor is a liberal or conservative. What matters is whether either type of leader could retain power once in office. Neither a Medvedev nor a Rogozin would be able to keep the current system as it is. But any reforms they might attempt would necessarily threaten powerful entrenched interests, and thus destabilize the existing balance of power. Moreover, it is unclear what kind of relationship Medvedev or Rogozin would have with the FSB, or whether either man could ensure the secret police’s non-interference in the country’s post-Putin political life.
I won’t speculate about which of these four scenarios is most likely. At any rate, they all raise the same question: In 2024, will the leader of Russia be Putin 5.0, or someone else? Whatever happens, we can be sure that with every passing day, Putin will become increasingly preoccupied with his existential quandary: What next?
Sergey Aleksashenko is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
I couldn’t finish this article. Tosh, BS most of it. Russia the aggressor? Come on, you can’t believe that yourself! One, in Ukraine, Russia responded to a coup organized by the West reclaiming that part of Russia which Khrushev "gifted" to Ukraine. We did worse in Kosovo. Two, despite promises to the contrary, the West has moved NATO to Russia’s borders. Who is the aggressor? Three, Russia spends in weapons 1/10 of the USA and 1/15 of NATO. Assaulting NATO would be tantamount to a suicide, and I don’t think Putin is suicidal. Insofar as economic stagnation, I just read SP’s upgrading Russia’s debt. The growth rate is small, but positive. Inspite of the sanctions. Perhaps Russian entrepreneurs wouldn’t like to invest in Russia, but they’ve got no choice, thanks to the sanctions.
You seem incapable of understanding why Putin is popular. Because he is popular. He is popular probably because Russians compare him to Yeltsin, who, beloved by the West, make life hell for Russians for a decade.
"Elections in Russia today are no more fair, free, or competitive than in Soviet times. The only difference is that only one candidate was on the ballot back then, whereas nowadays there are several, to make the exercise seem more credible."
That was not how the Soviet system worked: you had local councils, who elected regional councils and so on until the Presidium — the ultimate council. The Presidium then nominated the Secretary General, who was, de facto, but not de jure, the Soviet equivalent of President or Prime Minister for most of the time. There were no "candidates": everybody was, juridically, a candidate.
That, in practice, this was a game with marked cards, is another story. But then, if we are going to analyse things as they really are, the Western Democracies are not democracies either: you have a capitalist class who command the system from behind the curtains, through lobbyists, while the "people" vote on pre-selected (by these capitalists) candidates. It is a plutocracy.
"Putin’s reelection almost certainly means another six years of economic stagnation"
Really? If we analyse the macroeconomic numbers, Putin has promoted economic growth to Russia. It was only after the oil wars of 2016 (promoted by the USA and Saudi Arabia) that Russia registered a recession. But it also happened to other emerging economies (such as Brazil; China also saw its GDP see a cut of 3.5%). It was a global crisis. There’s simply no evidence Putin caused a recession in Russia.
There’s also a huge hole in the author’s theory. If Putin’s rule is so bad as he says, then the question remains: 1) why the Russian people hasn’t revolted yet and 2) why would Putin — who, admitedly, isn’t in the pocket of the West — destroy his own country?
"The second is a gradual consolidation of power in the hands of a small circle of elites, who have replaced the bureaucracy, parliament, and judiciary as Russia’s ultimate decision-makers."
It is funny the author mentioned this, since it was the West, using the IMF, which created this oligarchic elite of modern Russia (shock doctrine). Didn’t read it complaining at the time.
WHAT WOULD YOU EXPECT FROM A BROOKINGS INST. NEOCON ZIONIST WARMONGER ISRAELI AGENDA AGENT??? ANOTHER PIECE OF TRASH FROM A ANOTHER PIECE OF TRASH!!!!
The only reason why Putin LEGITIMATELY will be reelected is because overwhelming majority of Russia’s citizens want him to be a president and will vote for him. That’s all the people around the world need to know to make their own conclusions. Everything else is an ani-Russian propaganda hogwash.
"Putin’s country’s economic and political environment will continue to deteriorate"??? WTF?
Russia’s Sberbank is the richest bank in continental Europe, Russia is the world’s largest exporter of atomic power, defensive weapons, wheat and much, much more. Its economy withstood vicious Western sanctions and is thriving.
Send Alexei Navalny to Guantanamo, to learn about real democracy
If I were Russian, I’d vote Putin. One would be stupid not to. He is head and shoulders above the muppets and puppets of Europe. And let’s not even get into the circus that is the City on the Hill,
Catching Khodorkovsky was timely.
A few more months or he would have sold Russia to the West.
Putin saved Russia. No wonder the masses love him.
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