Most Russian citizens do not express a strong desire for sweeping change and do not have in mind a specific road map for reforms. And yet most Russians understand that the country cannot move forward, or even stay in place, without reforms.
Whatever changes 2018 and 2024 bring to Russia’s leadership, the broader political system will become increasingly depersonalized, making it—rather than the president—the source of stability.
Do not expect modernization after Putin’s 2018 reelection. Instead, the system he built will function on autopilot as the Russian leader continues to lose direct control over events, ideas, and actions. But that doesn’t imply democratization. In essence, the head of state finds himself chained to the galley that he built himself.
Vladimir Putin is sending out signals about how he sees his fourth presidential term. Domestic initiatives are not a presidential priority and will be dealt with at the technocratic level. In the political sphere, the real threat to Putin’s power comes from the moderate opposition. Above all, there is to be no more democratic window dressing. Preparations are well under way for a new act.
As President Putin approaches his fourth term, his personal power is diminishing. In the recent corruption case against Minister Ulyukayev, the licensing of European University, and lawsuits against Sistema Financial Corporation, Putin has been either unwilling or unable to interfere. With the president off to the sidelines, there are signs that Russia’s “night rulers” are expanding their power.
Political elites enjoy the best possible social status by virtue of their position, and by definition cannot want change. Long-term planning therefore shouldn’t be viewed in absolute terms, even if it’s reform-minded. Democratization is much more likely to be accidental, occurring when the regime takes steps intended to increase its authority that weaken it instead.
Russian regional leaders are rediscovering their power and their ability to fight with Moscow over budgets and autonomy. Discontent over Moscow siphoning off regional funds has reached a breaking point, while Tatarstan is in a new contest with the center over regional language rights.
The 2018 election in Russia is turning into a real political event. Putin is an undeclared candidate and Navalny is an unregistered one, who will have a real influence. The Kremlin is now run by regents around a diminished president, and discussion is already focusing on what the post-Putin era will look like.
Russian new regional governors are being given a version of Western-style management training perfected by Sberbank boss German Gref. They are like managerial special ops forces deployed behind enemy lines by Moscow.
Ksenia Sobchak’s run for the Russian presidency is not meant to siphon votes away from Alexei Navalny. The Kremlin’s aim is to create a pseudo-opposition, which will channel the discontents of the liberal urban electorate.