Putin’s Not Ready to Call It Quits

From annexing Belarus to reforming the constitution, speculation about how the Russian president will stay in power is rife. The question is whether any of the gambits will work.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2018. Alexei Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s constitution is getting old, complained Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of Russia’s State Duma, in an article last week. Volodin’s commentary sparked a firestorm of commentary and speculation after it was published. Why would the chairman say such a thing? And why would so many Russian politicians feel a need to respond publicly, as did everyone from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov? All the fuss might seem odd. For one, having just turned 25 last year, the Russian Constitution is not particularly old, as constitutions go. Further, Russia’s leaders don’t normally fret about the constitution either way, given that they’ve repeatedly trampled over provisions that they don’t like.

The problem is not really that Russia’s constitution is too aged but that Russia’s president is too young. Vladimir Putin’s current term ends in 2024, and per his country’s pesky constitution, he is not supposed to be president again, having just served two consecutive terms. Yet Putin is only 66, so he will barely be in his early 70s when his current term ends—younger than U.S. President Donald Trump and his rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are today. And Putin, it seems, is in far better health, given that the White House is much less keen on leaking shirtless photos than is the Kremlin.

What is the Russian president to do? His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, retired in peace after leaving the presidency, but Yeltsin was politically discredited and in poor health. There is little evidence, though, that Putin is preparing for a life of post-presidential leisure. Having ruined relations with his neighbors, he is unlikely to have the option of enjoying a vacation home in the Alps or the French Riviera. There is, moreover, some risk in relinquishing the reins of power. Whoever comes next will likely only feel secure after Putin has definitively left the scene. If so, Putin could find himself more like former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev than Yeltsin. After leaving office in 1964, Khrushchev was hounded by the secret police for the rest of his days.

Therefore, few in Russia think that Putin plans to leave in 2024. But how will he manage to stay? There are lots of theories. Several months ago, the rumor in Moscow was that Putin planned to leave the presidency of Russia for something even grander: the presidency of a union state of Russia and Belarus. The two countries share a customs union, and Russia regularly conducts vast military exercises on Belarusian territory. So the infrastructure for a union is already partially in place. But Belarus’s leaders, notably the country’s long-ruling president, Alexander Lukashenko, are not keen on giving up control. Moscow certainly has the tools to oust Lukashenko, but is it worth the cost?

Perhaps not, which may be why discussions about post-2024 plans have shifted in other directions. Rather than creating a new country, why not simply create a new or improved constitution? Hence the article by Volodin, the legislative chairman. Here, there are two basic options. One is to ditch term limits altogether and let Putin run for another term. There is little reason to doubt that the Kremlin could push through such a change if it desired. But abolishing term limits smells too much of satirical dictatorship, which the government would rather avoid. And making Putin a de facto president for life doesn’t really suit the mood of the Russian public, increasingly frustrated by stagnant living standards and their corrupt politicians.

What the Kremlin needs, in other words, is something that looks like a change but that doesn’t change anything too much. Hence Volodin’s idea: Rejig the constitution to create a new position in parliament that Putin could take over in 2024. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Facing similar term limits in 2008, Putin swapped the presidency for the prime ministership, placing his longtime ally Medvedev in the presidency.

The problem with another rotation between the president and prime minister is that, during the last time it was tried, Putin evidently didn’t like it. He let Medvedev stay in the presidency for only one term before executing what appears to have been a poorly planned return to the presidency. Putin is said to have grown disgruntled by his successor’s independent foreign-policy decisions and, perhaps more worrisome, by Medvedev’s popularity. Medvedev appeared surprised when he learned he would not be allowed to run for a second presidential term, though he dutifully relinquished the post. Russians were so angry about Putin’s crudely orchestrated return that they took to the streets in what remain the largest anti-government protests of the Putin era.

The idea, broached by Volodin, that Putin might want to again become prime minister therefore seems slightly absurd. But better options are few and far between. Parliamentary elections are coming in 2021, in which the ruling United Russia party is likely to get hammered unless the vote is further rigged in its favor. For the Kremlin, having to deal with a parliament in which the ruling party did not have a large enough majority to change the constitution would be a drag. Of course, the other parties are not particularly opposition-minded when it comes to Putin’s priorities. But as 2024 approaches, the margin for error declines. Perhaps it is best to get the succession question sorted out quickly.

The standard interpretation is that Volodin’s article was a Kremlin-approved trial balloon to judge the population’s and the elite’s responses. It is striking, though, how far in advance of 2024 these trial balloons are being let loose, and how high they are flying. We are still five years away from the end of Putin’s term, but in Moscow, the question of succession is already dominating politics. Even relatively timid newspapers have printed articles calling on Putin to return to private life after his current term ends, citing first U.S. President George Washington’s decision to serve only two terms as an example.

There’s probably no risk of the conversation spinning out of control, given the Kremlin’s dominance of the media and its skill in managing Russian politics. But the open discussion of Putin’s future must make some in the Kremlin uncomfortable. The more that Russians discuss the possibilities of 2024, the greater the risk that 2024 begins to seem like a year of genuine possibilities.

But could 2024 be a year of change? If Putin’s last surprise return to the presidency, in 2012, is any guide, the key question will be how the populace responds. Then, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to call for real elections. The elite was divided on how to respond, with some advocating dialogue with protesters and others calling for a hard line. Putin argued that the protests were a U.S.-funded plot to topple him, suggesting he believed the threat to his power was real.

In 2012, Putin managed to rally the elite to his side, preventing anyone influential from siding with the opposition. He could presumably do the same now—but he can’t be sure. After Volodin’s article on changing the constitution, seemingly everyone in Russian politics has expressed a view on what Putin should do next. Everyone, that is, except Putin. Perhaps he is waiting to announce his master plan. Or, perhaps he does not know what to do.

Chris Miller is an assistant professor at the Fletcher School, the Eurasia director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia. Twitter: @crmiller1

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