Putin’s Russia has a succession problem


The Kremlin recently indicated that Vladimir Putin may stay on as Russian president until 2030. It also suggested that he could, after a 2020 change to Russia’s constitution, prolong his rule further.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that he will still be in power a decade from now. Too many vagaries – foreign, political, economic, social, actuarial – have accumulated to expect a long gerontocratic rule by him and his coevally entourage.

The procedure for a power transfer within Russia’s highly centralized regime is unclear. Over the last 24 years, Putin & Co. have systematically watered down, subdued or perverted most Russian official institutions.

Whether national elections or private property, the Russian Orthodox Church or Constitutional Court, mass media or political parties — these and other Russian structures, networks and milieus have become compromised. They have suffered from manipulation, instrumentalization, derogation, infiltration and more. Even Russia’s most prominent and powerful office, that of the president, has an unclear status since the strange presidency of Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 to 2012.

What will, against this background, be the informal method and public mechanism for determining Putin’s successor or team of heirs? The Russian succession problem is a multivariate one, and its solution is blurred in at least three ways.

First, the stakes for each influential actor are unclear. What exact repercussions will the choice of this or that new leadership have for the key stakeholders? Can they improve, keep or lose their positions, influence, property or freedom? And, if so, how high are the stakes? Could some even lose their lives?

These questions are difficult to answer not only for observers but also for the protagonists themselves. Under Putin, the behavior of the Russian state has become characterized by arbitrariness and limitlessness. Some stakeholders may see the succession question as an existential one and accordingly push their candidates with vehemence.

Second, it is unclear which persons will be able and willing to run for president or, at least, for inclusion in a new collective leadership. Several Russian elites might already be considering their candidacies. Some may have sufficient political or economic resources to go for the top post. Others may have the ambition but insufficient clout or money.

Who will be allowed by the FSB (Federal Security Service) and Russia’s other armed agencies and ministries to take part in a contest for succession? Will the different “power organs” be able to easily agree who is in and who is out? And what happens if there is no consensus?

The third question is: Who will constitute the selectorate to nominate a presidential candidate for national acclamation with, we can expect, pre-determined results? Will it be the Security Council or another circle of people? Who would be setting the limits of this circle of kingmakers?

And what happens if the selectors cannot reach a consensus on their preferred new president or collective leadership? In particular: What happens if entire clans, ministries or agencies push different candidates? Could it even happen that powerful members of a potential selectorate take opposing ideological positions?

Normally in such a situation, one would recommend letting the people decide. Yet, it’s been more than two decades since popular votes mattered in Russia. Putin’s “elections” are designed to produce national confirmation of the pre-determined leader rather than to allow free and fair competition of independent political parties.

To suddenly hold nation-wide elections with an undetermined outcome would contradict patterns of behavior ingrained over two decades by thousands of public servants, party functionaries, media workers and police officers. It may be outrightly impossible to conduct real elections for the various national, regional and local bureaucrats tasked to organize them without some prior preparation or outside help.

A new kind of “time of troubles” may be in the making. Should the transition away from Putinism 1.0 be disorderly or even violent, the outcome is unlikely to be Putinism 2.0. To be sure, political predictions are notoriously difficult and unthankful to make. Yet, one can already say that Russia’s institutional dearth is potentially dangerous for all parties involved.

Russians and non-Russians should prepare for a messy succession process. Russia’s future political regime will, in one way or another, be different from the current one.

Andreas Umland, Ph.D., is an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).

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