A political transition has started in Russia. While preserving a powerful role for Vladimir Putin, 2024 might nonetheless bring about real-enough change.
Will Russian President Vladimir Putin leave power in 2024, or will he stay on? This the question Russia-watchers have asked since 2012, when Putin returned to the Kremlin. Many have claimed that he will no doubt stay, while a minority have maintained that he will leave. Paradoxically, now that Putin has finally outlined his vision for post-2024 Russia, both camps feel vindicated – and rightly so. Putin has given the world a sense of his plans but, characteristically, he is also keeping many options open. Still, below are a few things that we have learned.
1. The model of transition
Ever since the presidential election of 2018, the big, though quietly debated, political question in Russia has been about Putin’s plan for 2024. Will he groom a successor to take over his current duties? Will he seek to stay on in the Kremlin and amend the constitution accordingly? Or will he reshape the political system so that it allows him to leave?
Ultimately, it is a combination of the three – as it probably had to be. If one assumes that Putin does not intend to extend his presidency beyond 2024, go for another temporary switch of office, or initiate another imitation of a transfer of power, then one has to ask whether Russia can find a “new Putin”. Such a leader would have to function as an arbiter among elites and, importantly, have genuine-enough support among the wider population – something that has always underpinned Putin’s presidency, not least in enhancing his leverage over elites. If the president and elites cannot find or agree upon a new Putin, then the reintroduction of some checks and balances becomes the obvious option.
And this is exactly what Putin announced on 15 January: some diversification of power that makes the presidency less powerful than it has been recently and the State Duma more important, and that carves out a newly influential role for the State Council. Putin will still groom a successor – whoever steps into the diminished presidency will need his approval. And Putin himself will not slip into obscurity – we’ll no doubt hear from him after 2024. But he will act in a new capacity on a changed landscape.
2. Putin’s future role
So, what will Putin’s new role look like? It is hard to imagine him becoming prime minister again (he was visibly bored with the job last time round) or a Duma speaker. Most likely, Putin is reserving for himself the role of the head of the State Council, an institution that he can mould into whatever he wants it to be. Indeed, if needed, the State Council could just be a continuation of the presidency as we have known it. However, it is more likely that Putin’s power will change. It will become more selective: he will engage with topics that interest him, leaving mundane issues to others. He will take the role of an informal leader as much as a formal one: the comparisons sometimes drawn by Russian policy insiders include Deng Xiaoping after his retirement and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
This would be a novelty for the Russian political system. The role of a “supreme leader” or influential ex-leader has never existed in Russia. Quite the opposite: power-holders have only been able to leave office alive since Nikita Khrushchev’s retirement in the mid-1960s – and they have never retained their influence after doing so. But, with Putin, this is imaginable. Not so much because he wants to hold on to power, but because the system still needs him. A political landscape reminiscent of a desert – devoid of trust or functional power-sharing arrangements – requires such a figure, at least to start with. And, for Putin, this approach could provide him with the opportunity to finish his stint in power as gradually as he wishes.
3. Stagnation will slow down
It might seem that 2024 is still a long way off and that Putin has started the transition puzzlingly early. In reality, this is not so. If anything, his 15 January announcement was nearly two years overdue. Since the election of 2018, the Russian political system has been waiting for clarity about the future. The absence of clarity has demoralised the bureaucracy, given rise to destructive infighting among elites, generated dissatisfaction in wider society, and created a pervasive sense of stagnation. Putin had to end this. And he had to end it sooner rather than later.
If Putin really wants to hold a referendum to approve his proposed constitutional amendments, this has to happen at least one year before the next Duma elections, scheduled for September 2021. And, indeed, according to the latest news, the vote on amendments is being planned for some time before May 2020.
Putin is quite capable of making surprise decisions that cause backlash through their sheer lack of imagination.
It is likely that Putin wants the next Duma to be elected under the new arrangements. More importantly, the political discussion simply had to be re-energised – it had to be given something to focus on. Continued stagnation until late 2021 could have dangerously eroded the foundations of a tired political system that has been unable to reform, and that no longer benefits from the respite provided by the annexation of Crimea. Russia’s political system is much more robust than its opponents like to admit but, even so, doing nothing until 2021 would have been reckless at the very least.
4. It is still too early to discuss names
Most observers seem to agree that the new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, is a technocrat with no hope of rising – or maybe even wish to rise – to the Kremlin. Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has suggested that the Kremlin is reserved for Dmitry Medvedev. This is hard to believe: elevating Medvedev would make the succession look like a farcical replay of Medvedev’s 2008-2012 presidency, as opposed to a real, if gradual, change. Then again, Putin is quite capable of making surprise decisions that cause backlash through their sheer lack of imagination – just think of 2012.
The truth seems to be that, for the time being, we simply do not know the names of the future power-holders – and Putin does not know them either. The casting process for the Kremlin role has not properly started yet, but it will. In this, one should keep an eye on, for instance, Mishustin’s future vice-prime ministers.
5. But take nothing for granted…
Russian-Estonian semiotician Juri Lotman once described Russia’s relationship with liberalism using a fairy tale about a cat who turned into a princess. This princess was extremely pleasant, gracious, and good-mannered, but she had one shortcoming: whenever she saw a mouse, she could not help but jump up and chase it. Likewise, according to Lotman, Russian power-holders cannot help but go after liberal ideas.
A need for control is a feature of Russia’s politics, and of Putin personally. And this tendency can still undo his planned diversification of powers, reducing it to mere decoration. Some with Russian policy insiders claim that the NATO intervention in Libya in March 2011 (which Medvedev, as president, declined to block) made Putin change his mind about staying out of the Kremlin. If this is true – or if any foreign crisis could, in principle, have such a severe impact on Russia’s domestic arrangements – then any future power diversification is also in danger of collapsing in an emergency that inspires Putin to retake control of Russian policy. He might know it would not be good – but can he help himself? And if not, is anyone willing to tell him that it is time to go? We shall see.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.