UPDATE: Chatham House held a round table today (24/6/19) with Kirill Rogov, a political analyst, who discussed these precise scenarios. The suggestions and conclusions below remain my own, but I have updated them to take account of some of the things that Kirill said.
Vladimir Putin was re-elected as President of the Russian Federation last year by a healthy margin. Not quite the 70/70 margin that he was aiming for, but a significant first round majority in an election characterised by a lack of competition. But that was, at least officially, his last election. In 2024 his second term will expire. Russia, and the wider world, wants to know what will come next.
In essence, there are five options for Putin to consider and very few Russia watchers are brave enough to put much money on any particular one. The signs that he is going down a particular path might be well hidden, but they are nonetheless there. The trouble is that the same sign might lead to more than one outcome. Therefore, in no particular order:
A second ‘Dos-si-Dos’ with Medvedev
It worked once, so why not again? Taking a term off from the role of President to be Prime Minister is hardly a real change as no one would be under illusions about who is the real boss. Medvedev would undertake a bit more ceremonial stuff, but Putin would still pull the strings.
Except – Medvedev is not nearly as credible as he once was. In fact he is seen as a Dan Quayle-type by some in Russia, and there is currently no one else with sufficient profile to be slotted in as a reliable figurehead. What happens if the voters of Russia choose not to endorse Medvedev (or another nominee) in an election? And will Putin be seen as being too old to return. After all, the presidential term has been lengthened from four to six years and he will be 78 before he is allowed to resume the top job. UPDATE: Kirill Rogov pointed out that even ‘facade’ Presidents such as Medvedev can build up a coterie of followers who have either been excluded by the main regime or who see this as a means of advancement. This can be a problem for the main player when they return to the top job.
How we might see this coming – If Putin starts to emphasise the inviolability of the constitution; If Medvedev is replaced as Prime Minister or a credible, but not threatening, successor is groomed.
Stepping Away from it all
If the constitution says that Putin cannot stand again as President, then he could simply follow the constitution. It is the simplest and most elegant option and would bring praise from former opponents and enemies around the world. He could step back and enioy his retirement years in fitting luxury.
Except – Everyone knows that this is not how this story plays out. Russia as a top down autocracy might have lost some of its direction in recent decades, but even if every directive is no longer controlled by the party or the president, a lot of what happens is done because officials believe that this is what the boss would want to happen. Stepping away from such power and control is highly unlikely. Putin has undoubtedly amassed great private wealth but gives no sign of wanting to retire to enjoy it. And, once he is no longer in charge, he cannot protect himself, his friends or his family as he can now. Retribution is not going to come straight away, but in a decade or so life could get pretty tough for an ex-authoritarian.
How we might see this coming – More emphasis on the constitution and its importance; Strengthening ties with a friendly country where Putin might acquire a ‘holiday home’; Promotion of a successor who is stronger than Medvedev but nonetheless completely unthreatening to Putin; Interest in taking on an international role (ideally one that comes with some form of immunity).
A number of long standing leaders of former Soviet states are deciding that the time is right to step aside. Their concern, as Putin’s, is to safeguard their legacy. Or, more accurately, to ensure they aren’t likely to face the inside of a courtroom or the loss of all their pilfered gains.
So Putin might look to the example set by Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. Nazabayev stepped aside earlier this year in favour of his longstanding (and largely anonymous) sidekick Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But Nazarbayev didn’t quit politics completely. He retained the position of head of the Nur Otan Party (Kazakhstan is effectively a one party state) as well as President of the Security Council. In addition, every second thing in Kazakhstan is named after Nazarbayev – who is referred to as ‘First President and Leader of the Nation’. From airports to universities to the capital city itself, it is difficult to imagine him being denounced, let alone put under any real hardship.
Except – For all the deficiencies of the Russian Federation, it is a more open and pluralist state than Kazakhstan. Putin might well get a defence college named after him, but I suspect Moscow and St Petersburg will be inked into atlases for a few years yet to come. The United Russia Party was created to do Putin’s will but it has also been the shock absorber for discontent within the country and looks set to be abandoned in favour of a new grouping if needed. Putin could well keep hold of the country’s security aparatus and that could protect him for a few years, but it is not the long term solution that he might wish.
How we might see this coming – Almost certainly, we won’t. The secret to making this option a success is that it must come by surprise. Perhaps the absence of other options will be the clue. But if it is to happen then it is unlikely to be at the last minute.
A new union
The constitution forbids a third consecutive term as President of the Russian Federation. But what if there were another top job created? What if another, currently independent, state decided to throw in its lot with Russia to create a new Union. Well if that were to happen then that union would need to have a supreme leader, wouldn’t it? An elected President. And who better to guide this new creation than Putin? This option actually feeds into Russia’s adoption of the Brezhnev Doctrine and spheres of influence, especially if some countries cannot be trusted to be loyal of their own volition.
Except – The downside here, of course, is what state is going to give up its sovereignty to become a vassal of Russia? Belarus is the obvious choice, as many in Russia regard it as the only true ally but it seems unlikely. Kazakhstan is another option, but that ship might well have sailed with the accession of Tokayev to the seat of power in Nur-Sultan.
The other concern would be the consternation sparked in the remaining former Soviet states. Who would believe that Putin’s ambitions are limited to a union of two or three?
How we might see this coming – If it looks like Belarus is wobbling away from adherence to Russia or if any of the central asian states start to become too close to China.
A new constitution
That this is Putin’s final term is due to the limits imposed by the constitution. If such a document imposes limits that you don’t like then you can simply amend it, right?
Except – A new constitution would require a public vote and, whilst these have been easy enough to win in the past, the same might not be the case in the future. Putin is less popular than he was before and the crest that he rode after annexing Crimea has definitely fallen away. Presidential elections are easier to manipulate because a vote against Putin required ballots to be cast in favour of one of a range of pretty unappealling alternatives. Voting against a constitutional amendment is much easier to do as it means simply rejecting Putin’s power grab. UPDATE: Kirill Rogov points out that abolishing term limits might not require a referendum and could be undertaken by a simple Parliamentary Bill. He suggests that a move like this can either be undertaken on the back of a wave of popularity or in response to a national crisis. And whilst Putin has successfully ridden foreign policy interventions before, these are having less effect. He might need to ensure there is a crisis in which the Russian population perceives Russia to be the victim.
And whilst it is easy enough to rig an election – and he has had lots of practice – massaging a constitutional poll would be more blatant than anything Putin has yet managed. Expect mass footage of ballot box stuffing and rejection of the results by honest international observer groups.
How we might see this coming – If there is talk about the need for a new or updated constitution. Putin was very good at boosting turnout in the last presidential election by running ‘neighbourhood improvement ballots’ alongside. Give the public something they really care about to vote for and you can get away with slipping in a less popular change at the same time.