Putin’s plan

It’s not unusual for autocrats to have problems with term limits. Just two months ago, Bolivia’s Evo Morales was forced from office after defying them. Others in his position have ignored them, legislated to abolish them, or adopted various creative means to nullify them.

When Russia’s president Vladimir Putin faced this problem, in 2008, he played by the rules: he gave up the job after two four-year terms, and was instead appointed as prime minister by his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev served a single term, then left the field clear for Putin, who was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2018 (terms having been in the meantime extended to six years).

In theory Russia has, like France, a semi-presidential system, where executive power is shared between a directly-elected president and a prime minister responsible to parliament. In such a system it’s normal for the president to be the dominant figure at times when their party has a majority in parliament – as Putin’s has had since 2003.

The reality in Russia, however, as has become more and more obvious in recent years, is that Putin runs things regardless of what position he holds. Medvedev as president showed occasional signs of independence, but loyally returned to a subordinate role in 2012, when Putin appointed him as prime minister. He remained there until this week.

Much has changed in Russia in that time. When Medvedev won the presidency I was able to say that “Russia under Vladimir Putin has not lapsed back into dictatorship, and has not withdrawn from the civilised community.” That judgement is still arguable, but few would now assert it with confidence.

Nor is Russia’s economic condition anywhere near as rosy as it looked a decade ago. And the two things are related; Putin’s confrontational foreign policies, especially the 2013 invasion of Ukraine, have led to western sanctions and economic difficulties, and popular discontent has in turn provoked a tightening of domestic control and a tendency to pursue foreign adventures as a distraction.

That said, the blame should not all be placed on Putin’s shoulders. The west failed to engage with Russia when democracy was at its height, choosing instead to extend NATO to Russia’s borders. And America’s lawless behavior under George Bush jr set some convenient precedents for Putin to follow.

So Putin has both a short-term problem and a longer-term one. In the short term he needs to bolster his political position and appease public opinion, especially on the economic front. In the longer term, he needs to make some sort of provision for what is to happen in 2024, when his presidential term expires and he is constitutionally barred from running again.

This week’s announcements are an attempt to address both problems. By triggering Medvedev’s resignation he has provided a scapegoat for economic problems; his replacement, Mikhail Mishustin, has an image as a competent economic bureaucrat.

But Mishustin is also a political unknown, less likely than Medvedev to be a serious competitor for power. That makes it safer for Putin to rearrange some of the power structures in order to provide himself with new options for 2024.

He could, of course, simply amend the constitution, or resort to the same subterfuge as in 2008. But both would risk significant popular protest. This is not China: dissent is not illegal, and although Putin’s rule is far from democratic, there is a limit to how much he can ignore public sentiment.

There’s another factor as well. Putin is no longer a young man; he will be 71 when his current term expires. It’s very likely that he sees the attraction of a move that would reduce his workload, keeping control of the fundamentals while letting someone else – or some combination of others – take on the day-to-day tasks of running the country.

There have been several suggestions that he may be looking for inspiration to neighboring Kazakhstan, whose (very) long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, gave up the job last March. But Nazarbayev (who is 79) has not actually given up control; he retains the modest-sounding title of chairman of the Security Council, from which observers agree he continues to pull most of the strings.

Other examples are not hard to find. Deng Xiaoping ruled China without ever holding the notional top job in either party or government. The most he credited himself with was chairman of the Central Military Commission, and by all accounts he continued to be the supreme authority even after giving that up. Similarly, Lee Kuan Yew ran Singapore for at least two decades after his theoretical retirement, first as “senior minister” then as “minister mentor”.

But there are risks for Putin in going down this sort of road as well. This is something that overt authoritarians do; no-one ever thought Nazarbayev or Deng were anything other than dictators. Putin, on the other hand, has maintained until now the façade (and even some of the substance) of democracy. To give it up would be to concede to his opponents a valuable piece of moral high ground.

There is also the problem that protegés do not always follow the line mapped out for them. Medvedev did the right thing by his mentor last time, but with an older Putin having acknowledged his own mortality there is no certainty that he, or another placeholder, would be so obliging again.

With four years still to run, Putin has certainly started his planning in good time. But that of itself is no guarantee of success.

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