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 former president), Dmitrii Medvedev (as of this writing), would act as temporary head of state. New elections would take place within a three-month period. However, the institutions intended to produce presidential candidates and oversee the succession process during these critical three months have been hollowed out. If Putin eventually leaves office, the Russian constitution guarantees him immunity from harm and prosecution. It cannot guarantee against extralegal actions like a coup or assassination.
Putin has the capacity to designate a successor–the “next Mr. Putin”–to maintain the personalized nature of the current Russian presidency and secure his legacy, but even this could prove a heavy lift for the system. The Russian media is dominated by news of President Putin and his exploits at home and abroad. Few political figures, either close to the Kremlin or in the nominal Russian opposition, get airtime. Only a candidate from among Putin’s close associates could gain traction at the national level. This was the case in 2008, when, as mandated by the constitution, Putin stepped aside from the presidency after serving two consecutive terms. He handpicked Medvedev, one of his most trusted and loyal lieutenants, as his successor.
In 2008, Medvedev was Putin’s first deputy prime minister. Putin switched places with Medvedev (although taking the higher prime minister slot) to create the so-called tandem power arrangement. He prepared the ground for the tandem well in advance, beginning in 2007, by repeatedly stressing the dangers of having too much political power concentrated in the hands of one man and calling for system modernizations and modifications. Putin presented Medvedev as the representative of a new professional generation of Russian politicians–a child of the mid-1960s, rather than Putin’s early 1950s, who had embraced new technology with gusto. Medvedev was offered to the Russian electorate as the kinder, gentler, socially networked version of Putin, more in tune with the Russian zeitgeist of 2007–2008, which, against the backdrop of high and rising oil prices, was perceived as a time of domestic prosperity and political stability.2
Recreating the tandem with Medvedev, or a different protégé, remains an option for Putin at the end of his fourth presidential term. But having already done this once, is it really politically feasible or desirable to do it again? Medvedev returned to the position of prime minister in 2012. He knows what role he has to play, if and when necessary, and seems to have been kept in place as a tried and trusted “executor of the will” for emergency purposes. The circumstances of Medvedev’s departure from the presidency, however, cast doubt on his future suitability for anything more than a transitional role in a new power configuration. Since 2012, Medvedev has become a scapegoat for criticism, undercutting whatever independent popularity he gained during his tenure as president.3
Even though Putin and Medvedev had worked in lockstep since the 1990s, when they both served in the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg, the tandem was fraught with difficulty. The tandem’s dual-power mechanism created deep uncertainties about who was really in charge of what in Russian politics. Once he was head of the Russian government rather than head of state, popular dissatisfaction with the government’s performance was transferred onto Putin personally.4 From 2008 to 2011, Putin’s poll ratings declined, with a notable drop in 2010 – 2011.5 Rumors circulated of a potential “coup” against Putin by groups around Medvedev.6 International security crises – from Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia to the 2011 Arab Spring upheavals – and the impact of the global financial and Eurozone crises on the Russian economy changed the relatively benign environment in which the tandem had been conceived. In speeches, Putin talked of a more uncertain world and further shocks ahead. Medvedev himself spoke of the surprising turn of events in such a relatively short period of time.7 In September 2011, Putin appears to have been convinced that he had to end the ambiguity of the tandem right away to forestall being ousted from the premiership. He had seen a risk to his personal position and moved to reassert his authority over the political system.8
Putin’s fears were compounded by the December 2011 Duma elections. United Russia, the ruling party, failed to reach its predicted number of votes in many Russian regions. Footage of heavy-handed efforts to stack the vote in the party’s favor was captured by election observers and circulated on social media, provoking street protests in Moscow and other major cities. The protests occurred against the backdrop of past crises and changes of government following electoral upsets in so-called color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan; and shortly after the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddaffi during the Arab Spring.9
The electoral results and protests weakened Putin’s authority and destabilized the system. Putin’s declining ratings even raised the possibility that he could be defeated in the 2012 presidential election. Putin and those around him were convinced that the United States and the West were encouraging a “color revolution” in Russia. As it turned out, there was no Russian opposition movement or set of leaders who could organize themselves sufficiently to take advantage of the situation. Nonetheless, Putin had been dealt a blow. He took back the presidency in May 2012, but with far less of a resounding victory than he would have liked.10 Diluting his personal power by transferring the presidency had proven a mistake. Putin’s succession plans still needed some work. Dmitrii Medvedev and the tandem were not yet the man and mechanism to ensure Putin’s person.
In 2012, Putin had to prove he was back in charge of the presidency. He clamped down on those who had initiated and participated in the street protests and moved to emasculate Russia’s already weak opposition parties. The Kremlin decapitated the leadership of the nascent opposition outside the formal political party structures, steadily harassing, marginalizing, and then picking them off with individually targeted lawsuits and court convictions.11 The February 27, 2015, assassination of Boris Nemtsov–the last Russian opposition leader with national name recognition, who had a test run as Yeltsin’s heir apparent in the 1990s–prohibitively decreased the odds of any authentic Russian opposition movement or party emerging to challenge Putin.12
The Kremlin pushed legal prohibitions against street protests through parliament, raised the costs for parties and their candidates to campaign in big cities, replaced the head of the Central Election Commission, and imposed constraints on election monitoring.13 All of these efforts ensured that the next Duma election, on September 18, 2016, produced a low voter turnout in previous big-city trouble spots like Moscow and St. Petersburg, no significant demonstrations, and a very comfortable electoral result for United Russia. Regaining the super or constitutional majority of two-thirds of the parliament’s seats, which it had lost in 2011, meant United Russia’s position as the ruling party was secure once more.14
. . .
- 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).
- 2 Ibid., 193–194, 201–202, 216–217. Author notes from Valdai Discussion Club meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, September 14, 2007.
- 3 See, for example, Natal’ya Vasileva, “Tens of Thousands Call for Russian pm’s Dismissal,” Associated Press, August 5, 2016, http://midco.net/front_controller.php/news/read/category/ Europe%20News/article/the_associated_press-tens_of_thousands_call_for_russian_pms_ dismissal-ap.
- 4Russian pollsters frequently point out that, as president, Vladimir Putin has become inseparable from the Russian state in public opinion. Expressing a favorable view of Putin is similar to attesting patriotism and affection for the state irrespective of any deficiencies in Putin’s conduct or his inner circle’s. See Aleksei Levinson, “Reiting i korruptsiya: dlya bol’shinstva rossiyan president – ne chinovnik,” Vedomosti, May 24, 2016, https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/columns/2016/05/24/642141-reiting-korruptsiya.
- 5Hill and Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, 230. Russia’s leading independent polling agency, the Levada Center, has maintained a monthly index of Putin’s approval rating since he first became president in 2000, as well as indexes on public attitudes toward the state of the country and the performance of the government. These can all be found at http://www.levada.ru/old/indeksy.
- 6See Tom Parfitt's January 2012 interview with Gleb Pavlovsky for The Guardian, published in full as Gleb Pavlovsky, “Putin’s World Outlook,” New Left Review 88 (July/August 2014), https://newleftreview.org/II/88/gleb-pavlovsky-putin-s-world-outlook.
- 7Comments made by Dmitrii Medvedev to author and small group on the side of a formal presentation at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., April 13, 2010.
- 8Will Englund and Kathy Lally, “Medvedev Confirms He Will Step Aside for Putin to Return to Russia’s Presidency,” The Washington Post, September 24, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/dmitry-medvedev-asks-putin-to-run-for-president-of-russia/2011/09/24/gIQAXGwpsK_story.html. The timing of Putin’s decision was linked to the schedule for the December 2011 parliamentary elections.
- 9For a more detailed discussion of these developments see Pavlovsky, “Putin's World Outlook”; and Hill and Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, 227 – 259. Putin expressed an extremely negative reaction to Muammar Gaddaffi’s death, in Libya in October 2011, just a few weeks later at the November 11, 2011, session of the Valdai Discussion Club meeting (from author notes).
- 10Hill and Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, 231 – 232.
- 11Ibid., 249 – 251.
- 12See Sergei Aleksashenko, “Period poluraspada: god posle ubiistva Borisa Nemtsova,” Forbes.ru, February 26, 2016, http://www.forbes.ru/mneniya-column/vertikal/313657-period-poluraspada-god-posle-ubiistva-borisa-nemtsova.
- 13Kathrin Hille, “Russia: How to Exercise Political Control,” Financial Times, September 7, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/94c679fc-7418-11e6-b60a-de4532d5ea35.
- 14Matthew Bodner and Mikhail Fishman, “Elections 2016: An Overwhelming Victory for the Kremlin: The Ruling United Russia Party Dominates the 2016 State Duma Elections,” The Moscow Times, September 19, 2016, https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/duma-election-wrap-up-55383.