As the joke goes in Moscow, inquiring about president Vladimir Putin’s succession would be similar to asking about life after death. With the passage of time, the topic is naturally becoming increasingly relevant. Vladimir Putin’s fourth term ends in 2024 and according to the country’s constitution he is not allowed to run for re-election. But constitutions can be amended, and in any case the Kremlin has shown its ability to find creative solutions, like the 2008 job swap with Dmitry Medvedev. The result is that the handbook describing modern Russia’s complex and hybrid political system seems to contain no chapter on succession. In the absence of a crystal ball, one can only speculate about what will happen next, assume different potential scenarios of successions and analyze the likelihood and consequences of each of them.
First scenario: “Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi”. History repeats itself. Just like Boris Yeltsin did two decades ago, the Russian president and his circle pick a successor and he leaves political life. No need to wait until 2024, this scenario could take shape at any time. It cannot be excluded that Vladimir Putin is not able to give a clear identikit of his successor, but his interview with the Financial Times last June provided two interesting elements of answer: “I have always been thinking about [succession], since 2000. The situation changes and certain demands on people change, too. In the end […] the decision must be made by the people of Russia. No matter what and how the current leader does, no matter who or how he represents, it is the voter that has the final word, the citizens of the Russian Federation”. Firstly, legitimacy appears to be a key parameter. Indeed, according to the Levada independent poll-center, during his twenty years in power Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has always oscillated between 60% and 90% (it was 68% as of September 2019). Which means that his successor will not necessarily come from the Russian government, whose popularity over the last decade has been much lower, between 33% and 66% (43% in September 2019). The next Russian president could be a complete outsider from Russian politics, or a civil servant emerging from backstage. From this perspective, each head of the powerful presidential administration has looked like a potential candidate. Secondly, the successor’s profile has been evolving with time, depending on people’s demands, i.e. circumstances. In other words, the job description has evolved since May 2013, when 61% of the population had a positive attitude to the EU, and six years later when this figure had dropped to 38% (Levada). Nevertheless, one specific factor is unlikely to change: loyalty. But the latter cannot be guaranteed, which creates an obvious risk for the ruling élite: once in power, will the successor respect the élite’s interests and follow its instructions? If Vladimir Putin has indeed proved to be loyal to Boris Yeltsin, the country’s business and political landscape was quite recomposed during his first terms. Given the risks at stake, can the current élite afford to let Vladimir Putin exit the stage? And can he leave Russian politics at all? Contrary to his predecessor, who had health issues and was unpopular, Vladimir Putin has options. As the saying goes, “change is good, but no change is better”.
Hence our second scenario: “plus çà change, moins çà change”. Transition will become inevitable at some point. Still, is it possible to achieve some changes without the associated risks? Kazakhstan is trying an intermediary solution. In March 2019, after three decades in power, the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev surprisingly resigned to become head of the Security Council with the title of “father of the nation”. The idea is that he will no longer be involved in day-to-day politics but will still supervise the country’s powerful security services and keep an eye on the country’s élite. The Senate Chairman Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a respected diplomat, became interim president before winning the presidential elections a few months later. A constitutional reform adopted two years earlier actually limited his powers while increasing those of the parliament. The Russian political system and society are different, but this Kazakh experiment of gradual transition could be a source of inspiration for the Kremlin, with Vladimir Putin becoming a sort of “chairman” overseeing high-level strategy and foreign affairs, while a new “CEO/president” would actually manage the country. There are elements in common with the current distribution of roles at the top of the Russian state, with the government and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev already taking most of the blame for economic and social problems. In the case of the unpopular pension reform, Vladimir Putin got involved quite late in the process and granted some concessions. However, the Putin-Medvedev “tandemocracy” of 2008-2012 showed the limits of this official, bicephalic power structure, both in terms of divisions among the élite and popularity in public opinion.
Third scenario: “à la Boutlefika”. In the current context of international tensions, and in the absence of clear consensus about the successor’s profile, the status quo could be perceived as the least bad option. This scenario guarantees stability in the short term, but risks associated with immobilism increase every day. Firstly, this might be too much for the Russian population, especially given the discontent expressed during the summer of 2019, and we have seen that legitimacy is a concern. Secondly, Vladimir Putin is only 67 years old but nobody is immortal. The longer the Kremlin waits to make a decision, the higher the risks that something unpredictable happens to the country or its president.
Which leads to our fourth scenario: “le temps des troubles” (Time of Troubles, Смутное время). The expression defines the historical period that followed the death of Feodor I, Ivan the Terrible’s son, in 1598. The tsar had no successor and the boyars, Russia’s powerful aristocrats, started fighting with each other to control the throne, in what degenerated into a civil war. Neighboring countries profited by the chaos and manipulated Russia’s political life by playing with divisions among the boyars. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth eventually invaded the country and occupied Moscow, while Sweden received important territorial gains, denying Russia’s access to the Baltic Sea. On top of this, the country experienced a terrible famine that killed a third of the population. This dark chapter of Russian history ended in 1613 when the Romanov dynasty ascended to the throne. It left a deep mark on the Russian psyche, and in 2005 Vladimir Putin reinstated 4 November as Russia’s National Unity Day to celebrate the defeat of the Polish troops in Moscow. The repetition of another Time of Troubles four centuries later is obviously considered as a worst-case scenario. The contexts are very different but some similarities can be found. Being besieged and invaded is still a deeply-rooted fear, at least since the Mongol raids. Russia’s ruling élite is not monolithic, and today’s oligarchs can be compared to the boyars of the old Russian Muscovy. In the absence of strong political institutions, personal relationships play an extremely important role in the Russian political system. For instance, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is considered to have a special relationship with Vladimir Putin. Will he recognize the authority of his successor? If not, he might think about playing with the idea of independence. But this works both ways: part of Kadyrov’s powers actually derive from his personal relationship with the Russian president. Will his leadership be affected by Putin’s departure?
Succession can be well planned, but uncertainties cannot be eliminated. Russian history is full of surprises and the transition process might also run amok. Whatever its form, organized or spontaneous, succession is likely to lead to a reshuffling of the cards in Russian politics.