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Putin Is Following the Game Plan of Other Autocrats Before Him

And moves like his Jan. 15 announcement generally work—both to secure a leader’s power and ensure a favorable transition down the road.

By , a senior fellow and the director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a New Year’s address to Russians in central Moscow on Dec. 31, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a New Year’s address to Russians in central Moscow on Dec. 31, 2017. Alexy Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

All of the sudden, the transition of power in Russia has begun. In his annual state of the nation speech on Jan. 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised many by proposing constitutional changes that would redistribute power within the Russian government, giving more authority to positions Putin might himself take over when his presidential term expires in 2024.

It’s not that the idea of tinkering with Russia’s highest law was so shocking. After all, it was widely expected that Putin would find a way to extend his time in power beyond 2024. Instead, it was the timing of his announcement—four years before he has to step down—that caught people off guard. Yet by making the announcement now, Putin is avoiding succession pressures that could have built up over the course of the next several years and possibly triggered protests. Already, elite infighting was intensifying as individuals jockeyed for influence amid the uncertainty over Putin’s future. Moreover, the public’s discontent with the Russian economy, which has grown in recent years, is unlikely to abate. It could even worsen given Russia’s stagnant economic outlook.

The most significant among Putin’s proposed changes is the shifting of power from the presidency to the parliament. Russia’s current constitution provides for a strong executive. Although the first president under this constitution, Boris Yeltsin, was never able to fully leverage those powers, Putin has been able to maximize his role in Russian politics. But now, Putin plans to shift control away from the president and strengthen the powers of the prime minister and parliament. This change would pave the way for Putin to retain his influence over Russian domestic and foreign policy, albeit from a new perch.

One option for Putin is to step back into the role of prime minister, which he occupied in 1999-2000 and 2008-2012, and strengthen the powers of that position. This move would be akin to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to maintain power by calling a national referendum to create a strong presidential system, stepping down as prime minister, and then getting himself elected president in 2014. For Putin, this option would be risky, given that parliament and its head tend to get blamed for poor public services and economic disappointments. And by many accounts, Putin is no longer interested in tending to the day-to-day responsibilities of running a government.

The more likely option is that Putin will step into a new role as the head of the State Council, a body he created in 2000 to advise the president but that now has little influence. The idea of Putin transitioning into a position in which he can play the senior statesman or the “father of the nation” role had been floating around the Kremlin for some time. And lending credence to the theory, in his address, Putin did call for upgrading the status of the State Council. This pathway would resemble the transition of power in Kazakhstan in 2018. There, President Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled Kazakhstan for almost 30 years. Before he resigned last year, Nazarbayev strengthened the powers of the country’s Security Council and then became chairman of the body for life—which will make him Kazakhstan’s effective power broker for as long as he lives.

Regardless of the precise path Putin takes, it is almost certain that he will continue to pull the strings of Russian politics for the foreseeable future. Such an outcome is not unique to Russia. Rather, it is the most common course for authoritarian regimes that look like Putin’s Russia—highly personalized and run by the same leaders for 15 years or longer. Examining leadership transitions in all these countries, I find that in nearly 40 percent of cases (or 14 out of 37 leaders), leaders change the rules of the game and continue to retain power until their natural death in office. In Syria, for example, Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria for almost 30 years until he died in office. Closer to home, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov died in office after 16 and 25 years in office, respectively.

Perhaps surprisingly, this path raises the prospects that the ultimate transition to a post-Putin Russia will be relatively smooth. A review of all 79 authoritarian leaders who died of natural causes in office between 1946 and 2012 reveals that the broader regime remained intact that year 92 percent of the time. Even highly personalized regimes such as Russia’s survived the death of a leader 78 percent of the time. The experiences of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan illustrate this: Both regimes withstood the deaths of their longtime respective leaders, Niyazov and Karimov. This is because when an autocrat dies in office, political elites tend to coalesce around a new successor. To do otherwise would risk their privileged access to power.

This means that rather than ushering in significant change, Putin’s announcement—and his eventual passing from the scene—is likely to signal a continuation of the status quo. The announcement of Mikhail Mishustin as the country’s new prime minister supports this claim. As the head of the Federal Tax Service, Mishustin was a relatively unknown figure and certainly not one who pundits thought would play a role in any transition. In many cases of leadership transition in autocracies, leaders do seek to appoint relatively weak officials, calculating (at times mistakenly) that they will be able to control them. And if powerful members of the elite feel that they will have sway over such “compromise figures,” they may be more apt to go along with the decision.

It is, of course, far too soon to know if the leadership transition in Russia will follow the well-trodden path of other autocracies. While a change in the rules of the game to allow Putin to maintain real power is the most likely outcome, others are possible. In about 16 percent of cases, longtime authoritarian leaders are ousted by mass protests. In another 16 percent, such leaders are removed in a coup. And the trajectory of autocracies where leadership transitions unfold in these ways is more dismal. Data from 1946 to 2012 shows that when highly personalized dictators exited office by means other than natural death, the regime collapsed along with the leader 74 percent of the time.

Putin appears to recognize just how precarious the leadership transition in an autocracy can be, especially for highly personalized systems that lack institutional mechanisms like a powerful political party to guide the transition. By moving away from a strong presidential system, Putin likely seeks to convince the public (and perhaps the elite around him) of the viability of a post-Putin Russia. In this way, he is likely looking to solve the transition problem that has plagued personalized autocracies and, in doing so, pave the way for a smooth transition that would secure his legacy as one of Russia’s great leaders. The problem is that once the equilibrium in a long-standing authoritarian regime like Russia is broken, it becomes difficult to anticipate the nature of change that could transpire. Even the best-laid plans sometimes go awry.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a senior fellow and the director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Twitter: @AKendallTaylor