Vladimir Putin has won the presidential election in Russia and has secured six more years in power. A victory which was never in doubt. With more than 75 percent of votes the Russian president achieved the best election result of his career. Vladimir Putin’s fourth term as president will extend until 2024, making him the first leader in the Kremlin to serve two decades in power since Josef Stalin. In this regard, Russia is a very predictable country. The political choreography does not provide for surprising political power shifts. The expected part of the Russian political game is over now: Putin remains President for another six years. However, the afterglow of victory gives way to the less predictable parts. Putin enjoys overwhelming support, but he is facing several challenges in domestic and foreign policy, making his next term a minefield. While Russia’s “perpetual president” has to provide a lot of answers to these challenges, a particularly crucial one looms on the Russian horizon: The gnawing question concerning his very own future. Will it be Putin’s last term? With no successor and no political competition, what are the possible scenarios when his time in office ends in 2024?In contrast to Russia’s 2018 presidential elections this race offers it all: drama, enormous tension and uncertainty. According to the current constitution, Putin is barred from seeking a third consecutive term, his fifth total, in 2024. Asked by a journalist about whether he would consider future runs for president, he responded unequivocally: “What you’re saying is just silly … what, am I going to sit here for 100 years?” In another interview, the “’collector of Russian lands” recently declared, “I’ve been looking for a successor ever since I came to power”. Is this credible? Well, don’t count on it. In Moscow nobody expects him to retire to fishing and hunting.
It is clear that Putin must soon decide on his political future and how to arrange a possible succession. At the end of this term, Putin will be 71 years old. And the older he gets, the more he becomes aware that he cannot govern and fix the rules of the game forever. Six years is a long time and nobody knows what the world looks like in 2024.However, at the moment, a range of scenarios is possible, to combine the need for power and legitimacy.
Many analysts argue that Putin may decide to take the “Chinese path” and similar to Xi Jinping simply change the constitution to remain in power. Putin has said that he has no plans to change the country’s constitution for “the time being”, and suggested he would not seek the presidency again. However, he already has changed the constitution several times. We shouldn’t be surprised if he will do so again. Trying to retain the position for longer or even for life, however, includes a lot of risks. Staying too long in power, Putin could face the same fate as Robert Mugabe, who was hastily deposed as President after more than 37 years of rule in Zimbabwe. Alternatively, Putin could stay in power and continue ruling Russia after 2024 in a different role by repeating his move of 2008. Barred from seeking a third term in 2008, he staged an informal but conflict-filled contest among his potential successors, and finally chose Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. In a similar vein, Dmitry Medvedev or another placeholder could be steered as president into the Kremlin – still allowing Putin to remain de facto the most powerful man in the country. However, this time there are more pitfalls: In 2030, the next time Putin is constitutionally allowed to run for another term, he will be 78. Additionally, a lot of Russians were dismayed with his choreographed switch with Medvedev last time, resulting in substantial mass demonstrations when Putin returned to the Kremlin. Both factors make a similarly choreographed move risky and more unpredictable. Theoretically, Putin could merely try to determine a successor. The closest circle around Putin, high-ranking officials, generals and influential businessmen, all wait impatiently for such a decision, as their future, their security and their assets depend on it. The elite has already begun to prepare for his departure. Everyone around him seeks to secure their privileges for every imaginable scenario after 2024. However, anyone who has made the ascent in Russia has learned to navigate through a complicated system of informal agreements. To survive, members of the elite in today’s Russia must have a fine sense of where the limits of their power lie, when they must obey in advance and which fights are worth fighting. A struggle to have a place in “the system after Putin” will be certainly one. As replacing the man, will most likely also mean replacing parts of the state structure, Putin’s court will spend this term fighting for their future. Under the Putin administration two major groups mainly dominate Russian politics: technocrats and the siloviki (literally translated persons of force or enforcer) — the representatives of the security services,the army and law enforcement agencies. The last years, were a struggle of conflicting clans of both groups fighting for political influence and in favour of Putin or against him. In general, it is often unclear what exactly is going on behind the walls of the Kremlin and particularly among the siloviki. While such a clandestine behavior is normal for the processes in the security forces, it has also been normal for most processes in political Russia. For a long time, important political decisions were made in informal institutions. A few years ago, the administration of the president still decided on the countries entire domestic policy. However, in the last years we could observe a transfer of power away from such clandestine small circles towards a bigger collective bureaucracy. It is not unlikely that it will increase in the next six years in various institutions. Such a powershift combined with mounting uncertainty what happens when Putin’s terms ends means that long simmering tensions among the different Russian elite groups will result in more and more open conflicts. Already several fights, which were normaly settled privately behind the walls of the Kremlin, have exploded in public. To determine who comes after Putin might turn into a bare-knuckled fight between these groups after 2024. It is to be expected, however, that more and more intrigues will be publicly visible in the coming years.
In the middle of these conflicts stands Putin,being a projection screen for the contradictory wishes of very different actors. While liberals and pragmatists hope, that he will implement economic and digital reforms in the coming years, conservatives on the other hand, demand that he invests in new powerful weapons and mass surveillance and continue to pursue an aggressive foreign policy. Putin will play with these expectations in the coming six years relying on his successful mixture of divide and rule and controlled escalation. Both in domestic and foreign policy he alternated between attack and negotiation, repression and rapprochement, bellicose and peaceful rhetoric. It is unlikely that Putin will change this strategy now with the jockey for power looming. Like any leader he now has to deal with the problem, that when an expiration date is on the horizion his own court might focus more on self-preservation than on serving the interest of the ruler.
It is possible that Putin would like to take a step away from his current role. However, it is certain that he cannot just retire and not get involved in politics anymore. Too many decisions depend on his person. Stepping too far away from the inner power circle risks leaving Putin with a lack of control over Russia, his legacy and his allies in the ruling elite that guarantee his own security.
Several analysts have already pointed out that the Kremlin deliberately spreads succession rumours to test the waters among the elites and the broader public. Putin may also test several candidates from both groups to see if they can be worthy successors. Without question, it will be difficult to find a successor which will be similar to Putin, as his accumulated power cannot be that easily transferred to any other individual. For the past 18 years, Putin has been building a political system in Russia, in which he himself is the ultimate center. Indeed, the fact that he has been confirmed in office does not mean that all the Russians who voted for him are also satisfied with the current situation. However, the system created by Putin lives so well because it suggests that there can be no alternative to it. In this sense, Putin has become a prisoner of his own authoritarian system. Putin has to guarantee that a possible handpicked successor will have specific powers, however, as the president is notoriously protective of his position, he will also not be interested to make him too powerful. This provides a challenge for everyone planning to succeed Putin. Any candidate must be careful not to be seen as a threat to the president’s interests. However, the closer 2024 comes Putin’s ability to protect possible successors may also decrease, placing anyone at risk to fall by intrigues by rivals. Consequently, people that are considered to be possible successors don’t want to be considered as such. The various options will remain on the table. Most likely Putin will wait, maybe even for years, to ponder his choice. Either grooming a successor, changing the constitution or inventing a new position where he can continue to pull strings from the background, one thing is for certain: Although the perpetual president won’t be perpetual after all, he is indeed not up for retirement and a simple Dacha life after 2024. The succession issue will lure in the background of the political landscape for the years to come.
Jonas Spitra studied Asian Studies (BA Bonn), International Law (LLM Amsterdam) and International Conflict Analysis (MA Kent), his specialisation lays in the field of non-Western perspectives on world politics, rising powers as well as mediation and negotiation. He works in the field of communication.