Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares for a Night Hockey League match at the rink in Red Square. Photo: AFP / Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

Two decades have now passed since Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency of the Russian Federation: It was New Year’s Eve, 1999, when then-President Boris Yeltsin handed power over to his successor.

The enigmatic ex-KGB officer took over the Kremlin’s top seat after a decade of political turmoil and shock economic reforms that had brought the post-USSR Russia to its knees. Twenty years of Putin’s rule — the longest in Russian history since Georgian Josef Stalin’s rule over the USSR  — have changed Russia dramatically.

Putin’s critics accuse him of rolling back the democratic achievements of post-Soviet Russia, crushing dissent and establishing a vertical power structure with himself at its apex. Criticism also focuses on his 2014 annexation of Crimea and ongoing support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. And he has courted ridicule with macho publicity stunts – from bareback horse riding to goal-scoring appearances at ice hockey matches.

But nobody denies that the strongman has delivered two massively positive outcomes for Russia after the chaos and poverty of the Yeltsin years.

On the domestic front, Putin has stabilized Russia economically and politically. On the international stage, he has restored Russia’s status as a top-tier global power.

These achievements remain hugely popular with the populace.

Now, with only four years left before his second consecutive (and fourth in total) mandate expires in 2024, the question of how Putin, 67, intends to preserve his legacy and status through a power transition is increasingly relevant. While the former agent is expected to keep his exit strategy characteristically secret until the last moment, the chattering classes are already discussing the potential machinations with gusto.

Power personality

Most analysts agree on one main point: Given the highly personalistic nature of his regime, Putin won’t simply exit the political arena at the end of his presidency.

“The logic of an authoritarian regime presupposes that the autocrat will seek to preserve his power,” said Andrey Kolesnikov, senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Moreover, Putin has populated the current power structure.

“Russia’s political system is made up of people selected by Putin; the Russian elite is personally loyal to him,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis project R.Politik and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “That is why, even if he wanted to, Putin could not walk away as Yeltsin did.”

Kazakh precedent

One transition option for Putin would be following the example of the former president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who abruptly stepped down last year after almost 30 years of rule. Nazarbayev had his protege elected in a snap vote, while maintaining behind-the-scenes power by securing the headship of the country’s security council.

Similarly, Putin could have himself appointed head of Russia’s Security Council, a consultative body advising the president.

“The Kazakhstan scenario is highly attractive for the Kremlin, as it would allow Putin to maintain an informal grip on power while avoiding the responsibilities of the presidency,” said Grigory Golosov, the head of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg.

Another hypothesis refers to the possibility of Russia merging with Belarus, a former Soviet Republic, which would allow Putin to continue ruling as leader of a newly constituted Federated State.

A Russia-Belarus merger, based on a never-implemented 1996 integration agreement, has been raised several times by the Kremlin. However, it faces understandable resistance in Belarus.

“Despite being attractive to the Kremlin, the Belarusian scenario is highly unlikely given the attachment of the Belarus leadership to their sovereignty and a strongly opposed Belarusian public opinion,” Golosov noted.

Constitutional key 

Some clues on Putin’s future plans emerged during his end-of-year press conference in December. There, for the first time, he raised the possibility of constitutional amendment.

The constitution, he said, “is a living tool, it must correspond to the level of development of society. Everything, in principle, can be changed in one way or another”.

Putin’s statement was widely interpreted as a hint at his post-2024 strategy. While the constitution prohibits anyone from serving as president for more than two consecutive terms, Putin could remove this limit. And constitutional amendment wouldn’t be a hard task for a president who can count on the support of the Russian parliament – largely a rubber stamp subservient to the Kremlin.

Still, according to Golosov, this option is the least palatable to Putin. “It risks triggering Russians’ mass discontent, as such a move would be interpreted as a blatant usurpation of power,” said Golosov.

Most analysts expect Putin to opt for a more subtle maneuver to preserve his power. For example, in 2008, at the end of his second mandate, he swapped jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, then resumed the top job four years later.

If Putin steps down from the presidency, according to Stanovaya, tweaks to the constitution will still be necessary for him to preserve his power by taking on some new capacity – such as head of a Security Council with enhanced powers.

“He will need to find a place in a new government structure, which would allow him to keep his influence and possibly veto power over the future president’s decisions,” she told Asia Times.

Under this scenario, constitutional amendments could reduce future presidents’ power. This hypothesis was reinforced by Putin’s comments on the possibility of removing the “consecutive” clause from the presidential two-term limit.

“Your humble servant served two terms consecutively, then left his post, but with the constitutional right to return to the post of president again, because these two terms were not consecutive,” Putin said at his press briefing. This clause “troubles some of our political analysts and public figures. Well … maybe it could be removed.”

With the removal of the “consecutive” clause, a future Russian president could serve only a single six-year mandate – which, as Golosov pointed out, would prevent that new president from consolidating too much power in his hands. Putin’s behind-the-scenes role – with no term limit – would be more powerful.

Still, Putin’s statements are, at this point, mere trial balloons.

“Putin may just be testing the ground, playing with public opinion and testing the reaction of the Russian elite,” Kolesnikov said. “You shouldn’t take the words of a former KGB officer too seriously.”

Who’s next?

So who are the potential successors?

The most likely candidate to succeed Putin in 2024 is Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. His absolute loyalty to Putin was tested during the 2008-2012 job swap. “Medvedev’s political career is Putin’s creation, which means he would be easy to control,” said Golosov.

Then there is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s second most trusted politician after Putin according to polls – especially considering that the armed forces are the most trusted institution among Russians.

But it is perfectly possible that Putin hasn’t decided upon a successor yet. Or, if he has, the time might not yet be ripe to present him or her to the public. And that person could be an entirely new face.

“Putin’s choice might have fallen on a low-profile, off-the-radar figure,” Golosov suggested. “In that case, the successor will be presented to the public not long before the expiration of Putin’s mandate, just in time to mobilize the media and boost the candidate’s popularity ahead of the elections.”

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