August 7, 2020
IntelBrief: What Would a Post-Putin Russia Look Like?
On July 1st, the Russian public voted in a disputed referendum to amend its constitution and extend Vladimir Putin’s tenure as president until 2036. The implementation of this constitutional amendment comes amidst historically low public approval ratings (at least by Russian standards), a strained economy, and protests over the arrest of popular Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) politician Sergei Furgal. By the end of his now-extended final term, Putin will be 83 years old and will have served as premier longer than Josef Stalin. Given Putin’s age and the constitutional limit to his authority, policymakers and Russia-watchers alike must begin to ask themselves: what becomes of Russia after Putin? In a state with such centrally planned politics and foreign policy, this is a vexed and complicated question with no easy answers.
Russia is faced with several key domestic challenges that, left unchecked, will create significant hurdles for decision-makers and political elites in Moscow. The country’s hydrocarbon-dependent economy faced a shock earlier this year in the wake of a costly price war against Saudi Arabia. The production cut stipulated by the concession agreement with Riyadh places additional strain on an already precarious budget. This strain, coupled with the development of climate-friendly energy policies in the European market, could progress into severe economic trouble. However, efforts to pivot to an oil-hungry China aided by the ‘Power of Siberia’ pipeline could mitigate this issue. Russia’s central bank also holds a large sum of foreign reserves, which will help stave off a complete crisis in the event of a broader budget collapse. Increased financial woes and a continued slowdown in economic growth could amplify dissent regarding increasing political centralization and declining purchasing power. Protests erupted in the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk after the popular local governor, Sergei Furgal, was arrested on a 15-year-old murder charge. State-sanctioned opposition parties like the LDPR, of which Furgal is a member, play an essential role in the façade of Russia’s democracy. While the Kremlin tightly controls most elections and often rewards opposition candidates with lower-level political positions for losing at the ballots, Furgal’s victory was not part of the script. Continued unplanned regional upsets could pose an optics problem for the Kremlin, and Moscow will work assiduously to closely monitor the state of periphery politics to prevent any further unexpected political disruptions.
The wellbeing of Putin will also affect the development of the succession process. In complex, patrimonial political systems like those in Russia, the order of succession is often deliberately obfuscated. Per the Russian constitution, if the president can no longer perform his duties, the role will pass to the prime minister. Following Dimitry Medvedev’s resignation from this post (which he had held for eight years) in January, Putin appointed Mikhail Mishustin, a former tax director with little apparent ambition or political clout, to the position. Mishustin’s diminutive political stature could pave the way for more powerful Putin allies and competitors to strong-arm their way into the presidency. If Mishustin does not consolidate power, the ensuing competition between the various cliques comprised of silovikis (security service members), oligarchs, St. Petersburg economists and lawyers, and remnants of Boris Yeltsin’s network would likely be chaotic and violent. A victor in this struggle is impossible to predict. Posturing for this competition has already begun and will continue until a successor is named or otherwise determined behind the scenes.
If Putin does have the chance to prepare for the expiration of his final term in 2036, the transitionary government put in place will take one of several forms. The route taken by former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev might provide the most likely framework for this transition. At the age of 80, Nazarbayev stepped down from his position as head of state but retained the title of ‘elbasy’ (Leader of the Nation) and his role as head of the Security Council, effectively retaining supreme political authority. As elbasy, Nazarbayev and his family secured blanket immunity from prosecution. To skirt constitutional limits, Putin could look to ‘move upstairs’ in a similar fashion, maintaining ultimate political authority while relinquishing his title of ‘president.’ This approach would buy additional time to ensure a smoother transition of power. Alternatively, Putin could name a successor before the end of his final term. However, as evidenced by several strongman transitions in Central Asia, naming a next-in-line prematurely could serve to undermine Putin’s power before his tenure is complete. For this reason, it is unlikely to expect such a nomination coming out of Moscow anytime soon. Whichever route he takes, Putin will not allow any transition which diminishes the power of his inner circle or threatens his vast economic assets and the legacy and livelihood of his family and friends.