“In Russia, every ten years everything changes, and nothing changes in 200 years.” This quote ascribed to the early twentieth-century Russian reformer Pyotr Stolypin encapsulates well the conundrum for anyone trying to come to grips with political change in Russia. The crucial challenge for an assessment of the next decade, therefore, is to neither under- nor to overestimate the magnitude of expected change. Appropriate questions that take into account potential change and enduring legacies might be: What would change if Putin remained in office? And what would remain the same if Putin left? The next decade depends on not just if Putin stays or goes, but rather how this “transit” plays out. In other words, the “Putin transit” is about many other things besides the president. Each of the seven scenarios presented below delineate a different Russia. None of these futures, however, necessarily presume that domestically, Russia will transform into a fully-fledged democracy soon, nor that it will become much easier to deal with in terms of foreign relations.
Russian scenarios in comparative perspective
About 30% of all countries– like Russia — are currently classified as authoritarian regimes and they are inhabited by around 40% of the world’s population. In contrast to democracies, political survival depends less on voter preferences and more on the support of a core coalition of elite actors, even when elections are held on a regular basis. Moreover, when succession is not determined by clear rules, a change in leadership does not only entail an overhaul of the government, like as in democratic countries, but often a change or even collapse of the whole regime itself.
Domestically, Russia has entered a period of heightened uncertainty. The rally-‘round-the flag effect of the “Crimea consensus” that welded together the political leadership, the larger elite and the population is over. President Putin’s popularity is declining, but he remains by far the most popular and trusted politician. Being in power since 1999, Putin’s second (fourth in total) term in office ends in 2024. As the Russian constitution stipulates a two-term limit for the presidency, the year 2024 marks a focal point for the whole regime. Paradoxically, the so-called “Putin transit” implies that Putin could seek to stay in power, or leave the scene one way or another.
Russia is a highly personalized, closed authoritarian regime with non-competitive elections and without an institutionalized succession mechanism. In the run-up to the focal year 2024, the importance of elites beyond Putin and his innermost circle becomes more and more important for three reasons. First, high uncertainty over 2024 forces these elites to hedge their bets, a further plunge in popularity could turn Putin into a lame duck. But not only could a change in leadership entail a massive redistribution of power and property, the way Putin could choose to stay in power would also be advantageous for some, and unfavorable to others. Second, international confrontation since Crimea and Russia’s resurgent behavior on the world stage have led to a partial removal of the incumbent from domestic politics, day-to day policy-making and implementation is outsourced to clients. Third, the enduring reform logjam across policy domains has been accompanied with a degradation in the quality of governance. The shrinking resources and growing appetite for rent-seeking increases infighting for chunks of financial streams. Even though repressive measures are also used to discipline elites in a top-down manner, infighting is not always hierarchically coordinated and therefore increasingly produces surprises for the leadership, too.
Putin is well aware of two well-established patterns: seemingly stable authoritarian regimes can collapse in a matter of short time, and orchestrated power transfers are generally risky. With regard to the former, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring were formative experiences. On the post-Soviet space, only every third planned non-democratic transfer of power was successful. In Russia, the two power transfers from Yeltsin to Putin in 1999 and from Putin to Medvedev in 2008 were hammered out behind closed doors and seem to attest to positive examples of transitions. At a closer look, however, both turned out to evolve contrary to initial expectations, hence they reinforced Putin’s perception that relinquishing power is risky and generally undesirable.
Putin remains: three pathways
The baseline scenario should therefore be that Putin will attempt to remain in power. Speculations about the pathways have been circulating soon after Putin’s reelection in March 2018 indicating that elite groups would want to push developments in one or another direction. Even though the Presidential Administration will be actively involved in scenario planning, the final decision will be made by a much smaller group, delayed and announced on very short notice and as a surprise for virtually everyone. Generally, three pathways to retain power appear to be on the table.
First, the arguably most straightforward pathway to prolong Putin’s rule would be to abolish term limits by amending Article 81.3 of the Russian Constitution. The amendment bill would need a 2/3 majority in the State Duma and ¾ of the votes in the Federation Council. Barring a complete disaster for the dominant party United Russia (it currently controls 343 of 450 seats, but with 32.2% approval in July 2019 its electoral popularity is at a record low) at the 2021 Duma elections, an amendment will amount to a mere technical legislative tweak even though the constitution has remained fairly unscathed in Russia’s post-Soviet history. A legitimation of a fifth term by popular election would be a comparatively safe way to extend the incumbent’s rule, since the end of the Cold War extensions of term limits have quadrupled. It is not without risks, though. Large-scale protests in 2011 were as much triggered by election fraud as by disappointment Dmitrii Medvedev would not run for a second term. Survey results show that in July 2018, 38% of Russians want Putin to step down after 2024, and that supporters of term limits are also willing to take part in street protests, therefore the amendment could trigger large-scale demonstrations. Despite a likely successful reelection, in the fifth term additional measures would need to be taken to counteract delegitimization. This could take the form of further repressive legislation as in the aftermath of 2012, a new rally-‘round-the-flag mobilization after a domestic and/or an external threat (besieged fortress scenario), or a stronger emphasis on ideological issues revolving around nationalism and conservatism that would demand active support, and not just passive acquiescence as in the period before 2012.
Second, Putin could opt for a substantial remodeling of the institutional framework that would redistribute power away from the presidency to parliament (as lobbied for by Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin) and government, or to a collective governing body – a State Council (not to be confused with the already existing State Council which is a platform where regional governors and the government meet to discuss federal relations) or the Security Council. The anointed successor would then be elected to a much weaker presidency, and Putin would take up a new position that would guarantee enough powers to counterbalance the presidency and take back the reins if things get out of control. The presidency is by far the most trusted institution at the expense of all others, therefore several problems arise: United Russia is essentially a ruling party that doesn’t rule, the “Achilles heel” with gradually eroding authority. Moreover, even though Putin enjoys genuine popularity among the population, he does not possess the status of the “father of the nation” as Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, Deng Xiaoping in China or Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. Nonetheless, a continued rule in a collective body such as the Security Council with expanded capacities and co-opted key members of the elite could indeed smoothen the transition process even though it would call into question the legitimacy of a regime built on a high degree of personalism.
Third, the actual implementation of the 1999 Union State treaty between Belarus and Russia would imply that the two countries agreed upon a Constitutional Act that would need to be ratified by both countries in addition to amendments to the national constitutions. Supranational institutions would then also include a common head of state and head of government, and exit option that would relieve Putin of the term limit. Given the strained relationship in 2018 and 2019 and the renewed negotiations on deepened integration for more Russian subsidies for Belarus, this scenario cannot be excluded altogether. Nonetheless, Russian policy seems to be driven by the impetus to spend as little money as possible on Belarus while preventing it from drifting too far away towards the EU, and not so much by a neo-imperial drive to merge with its closest ally on the Western flank. Overall, it would be the most risky path since Alyaksandr Lukashenka made it clear that national sovereignty is a top priority for his administration. Since parity as stipulated in the Union Treaty is not an option for Russia due to the factual disparity in power and size, a real Union State would only be feasible with significant economic, and likely also military coercion. De facto swallowing up Belarus would not only be tremendously costly, but would also massively deteriorate relations with the EU and NATO.
Voluntary and involuntary exits: Avenues and prospects
Vladimir Putin could select a trusted successor who would then run for presidency with the full political and administrative support of the incumbent. At least in more competitive authoritarian regimes, this step emboldens the opposition and therefore entails elevated risks the successor could lose – for example against a highly popular, or even populist, social media-savvy outsider candidate — or at least only win with massive electoral violations. But even if the handpicked candidate wins with a solid margin, risks abound: Even though federal law guarantees ex-presidents immunity and state protection (Federal Law Nr 12, 2001), Putin could never be entirely sure the successor would actually be committed to the law, and potentially also to an informal pact between the two. But since power is highly personalized around the clans and networks of the president, this pact would also need to extend to the broader elite, in particular to the “kings of state procurement” and heads of the largest state companies and state corporations. The successor, however, would be forced to create his/her own power base, therefore the pact would gradually weaken over time. Just as Russians believed the privatization of assets in the 1990s was unjust, the population might also harbor a highly negative view of the elite that became tremendously rich under Putin, especially if the economic situation deteriorates further over the next years. Therefore, both elite actors affiliated with the successor as well as the broader population are likely to exert pressure for redistribution of assets and the state budget. Putin is well aware that successors bring their own agenda, he himself took control over TV right after coming to power and oversaw the expropriation of Yukos. Medvedev’s interim presidency also demonstrated that he pursued own public policies ranging from military and law enforcement reform to foreign policy, with a “reset” with the United States and a “Partnership for Modernization” with the EU. Moreover, after the return of Putin, many of these policies were thwarted, and bureaucratic and economic actors associated with Medvedev’s presidency were either gradually sidelined or even persecuted in the course of Putin’s third term.
For the short- to mid-term, Russia demonstrates resilience with significant resources for political stability. Still, a “black-swan” could trigger a cascade of events that might lead to an involuntary change in leadership and the regime itself. But even then, chances for democratization are low at about 20%.
First, even though President Putin regularly demonstrates he is in good physical shape, a premature death in office can never be entirely excluded. In these cases, regimes usually persist and democracy is unlikely to thrive . But as recent developments in Uzbekistan demonstrate, such a premature exit can be accompanied at least with a tentative political opening.
Second, military coups were prominent means to ouster authoritarian rulers, in particular in Latin America’s military dictatorships in the 20th century. In the last decades, however, coups have occurred less frequently around the world. In Russia, the military is traditionally under civilian control, and its organizational culture acknowledges civilian supremacy over military affairs. When military units interfered in the past, they usually did at the behest of civilians and when state sovereignty was under threat. Also, other military officials were usually instrumental to thwart these interventions via arbitrage. Moreover, a divide-and rule-tactic is employed as the main coup-proofing strategy to counterbalance various force agencies: one recent example is the creation of the National Guard in 2016. The same holds for the various intelligence agencies that are powerful, but with overlapping competences. Therefore, as long as the military and security agencies enjoy comparatively high salaries compared to other cohorts of the population, and as long as the leading staff has sufficient opportunities for rent-seeking there are little incentives for the military to revolt against civilian supremacy.
Third, even though mass protests only rarely lead to the toppling of authoritarian rulers, the frequency of such revolts has increased after the end of the Cold War. When these events occur, it is very likely that not just the leadership, but the whole regime is replaced by a new one. When the use of violence is low, then chances of democratization are fairly high. Therefore, it is not without reason that the Kremlin has been watching the Color Revolutions in post-Soviet countries and the Arab Spring with great concern. The nation-wide protest movement of 2011-2012 came closest to such kind of mass protest, but since then, the Kremlin was apt to discipline those elite actors who were supportive of the protests, to pass repressive legislation and step-up targeted as well as arbitrary repression against activists, offline and online. Even though the costs of taking part in protests are high, the number of contentious actions — especially on a local and regional level — is increasing, and motives range from environmental concerns to labor strikes — some of which have caused considerable headache for federal authorities in Moscow. In the words of Samuel Greene, a “general quiescence” has long “co-existed with a deep-seated antipathy towards the country’s ruling elite”. A tipping point for the whole regime would only be reached when the state and its socio-economic policies are not only seen as dysfunctional and unjust, but the regime and its leadership as illegitimate in its entirety by a critical mass. In the event of a successful –albeit highly unlikely — color revolution à la russe, developments after regime change would heavily depend on the scale of mass mobilization, and the amount of force that was used in the attempt to suppress the uprising. But given the scale of problems to be solved by a reformist government, after a honeymoon period, the deeply-rooted sentiment of distrust towards political elites would kick in, and reliance on personal self-help networks would still be more important than reliance on the Russian state.
“There is Putin – there is Russia. There is no Putin – there is no Russia.” This famous dictum by the former deputy head of the Presidential Administration Vyacheslav Volodin was less meant as a serious analysis rather than a warning to the attendees of the 2014 Valdai Club: Any Western targeted punitive measure against Putin and his inner circle would be interpreted by the broader elite and the population as targeted at Russia as a whole. Driving an external wedge between “Putin” and “Russia” in Volodin’s logic was impossible since there was no difference. Indeed, good arguments can be found to why Putinism might exist, and persist.
Nonetheless, this article has taken a slightly different perspective arguing that the “2024 transit” and the way its resolution plays out will determine just how big the role of Putin himself, but also of alternative elites, institutions beyond the presidency, rank-and-file bureaucrats, political parties, Russian regions, or civil society will be.
Photo: Kremlin.ru. CC BY 4.0