Vladimir Putin, the person and the president, is the wild card in Russian politics. After what could be a quarter of a century in power by 2024 (either as president or prime minister), Putin’s departure could prove utterly destabilizing. Russia’s principal political problem is determining who or what replaces Putin as the fulcrum of the state system in the decade ahead. This essay considers the question of whether “Putin’s Russia” – a hyperpersonalized presidency supported by informal elite networks – can transform into a depersonalized system that is rooted in formal institutions with clear, predictable mechanisms to mitigate the risks of a wrenching presidential succession.
Since the beginning of his third presidential term in 2012, Vladimir Putin has moved to shield himself against challenges to his authority, using his presidential prerogative to sap power from bases outside the Kremlin. State institutions, like the Office of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet of Ministers, the Constitutional Court, the Russian State Duma (the lower house of parliament), and local government structures have been systematically downgraded. The presidential administration and the Russian Security Council now function simultaneously as Putin’s personal staff, the core of critical decision-making, and the apparatus for overseeing affairs of state. Russian political parties have been eviscerated–their political platforms appropriated and repropagated by the Kremlin.1
The increased preponderance of power in the Kremlin has created greater risk for the Russian political system now than at any other juncture in recent history. Theoretically, at least, the Russian constitution offers a formal process to safeguard the presidency and the presidential person. If Putin suddenly dies in office, the sitting prime minister (and for- . . .
- 1The analysis of the nature of the Russian presidency and political system in this essay draws heavily on Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Press, 2015).