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With President Vladimir Putin entering his fourth term, it is quite obvious that the Russian leader has a succession problem: term limits prevent him from running again in 2024. That issue is always a challenge for personalized regimes, but it is particularly serious in the context of Russia’s partial international isolation and protracted economic stagnation.
As a result, everything the regime does in the coming six years will—in one way or another—be linked to the 2024 transition.
So far, we cannot fully predict the succession problem’s exact solution. In fact, Putin himself likely has no clear answer. However, with the selection of a new Cabinet, Russia has already set the mechanism leading up to the succession decision into motion. This means we can make some reasonable conclusions about Putin’s likely approach to transition.
After Putin’s fourth inauguration on May 7, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was immediately reappointed to his post. This lay to rest the popular belief that he had lost the “crown prince” status he gained while serving one term as president and then allowing Putin to return to the helm.
Now it appears the opposite is true. Konstantin Chuichenko—Medvedev’s man—will even become the government’s chief of staff and deputy prime minister. This important development suggests that Medvedev could exercise more political initiative as the prime minister this term than he did for the past six years.
This provides us with hints about the direction of Russia’s 2024 transition. But to understand why, we must take a closer look at Putin’s options. Realistically, the president has three straightforward choices for transition.
The first—the “Central Asian scenario”—would involve constitutional amendments to eliminate term limits. The second—the “Boris Yeltsin scenario”—would entail choosing a successor, as Yeltsin did when he selected Putin. And, finally, the “Chinese scenario” would use constitutional amendments to curtail presidential power and expand the role of a ruling party.
Research in comparative politics suggests that party-based authoritarian regimes are generally more stable than personalized ones. Specifically, they are better at ensuring succession, as the last forty years of Chinese history demonstrates.
The problem is that the single-party model is outdated and hardly viable anymore. Most of the currently stable single-party regimes (14 out of 15) date back to the Cold War. By comparison, the personalized-power strongman model is quite popular and reproducible around the globe. Even China—a single-party regime success story—shows signs of shifting to the personalized model. The reason for this change is clear: party regimes emerged during the twentieth-century era of ideologies, while, today, the problems of national development mostly center on the economy.
Besides, public opinion polls demonstrate that Russians have very little confidence in political parties and place greater trust in a strong leader. Confrontation with foreign powers and Russia’s claim to the status of a “second-tier superpower” also boost the demand for personalized leadership.
The Yeltsin model of power transition—when the next leader receives all the powers—is also unlikely. History suggests that this model guarantees security to the patron (the former president), but gives no guarantees to his numerous clientele. In fact, the successor becomes a full-fledged ruler only when he severs past agreements with clients and withdraws previous guarantees in order to distribute new privileges on his own behalf.
The elites don’t feel comfortable with such a transition. And this model only works when the old president has exhausted himself physically and politically, as was the case with Yeltsin. But that is not true of Putin.
Rescinding the term limits will probably remain Putin’s fallback option. But the recent protests in Armenia aptly illustrate the shortcomings of this approach. When rulers break promises, they may suddenly and swiftly lose their public legitimacy. This is even true in highly authoritarian societies. Like in Armenia or during the Arab Spring, an event triggers the public and suddenly it views the leader’s behavior to be illegitimate and deceptive.
All these limitations make it likely that Putin will chose a compromise scenario. This would combine a designated successor with a redistribution of powers. Medvedev’s reappointment fits nicely into this model: his relative weakness allows space for institutional innovation.
Under the compromise scenario, the president handpicks his successor, but some presidential powers are handed over to the prime minister. Additionally, the ruling party receives a greater role. This arrangement introduces a second center of power in the executive branch.
This scenario would include rebranding the unpopular United Russia party. More powerful and influential figures would enter the party’s top structures, and Vladimir Putin would become its leader. The prime minister would also receive greater constitutional powers, which would be presented as steps toward government decentralization and democratization in favor of a stronger parliament.
Several measures could check presidential power. First, dismissing the prime minister might require the parliament’s approval. Also, more security service officials could be appointed to the government, and the prime minister and the parliament might be granted the right to introduce candidates for the positions of Prosecutor General and Supreme Court chief. Moreover, the prime minister could appoint the heads of state-controlled corporations and media outlets.
For its part, United Russia—or the person controlling its central administration—would recommend gubernatorial candidates to the president. And, as in the current system, the president would then appoint the candidates acting governors, and they would go on to win uncontested elections.
The general contours of this model appear quite simple and realistic. They essentially match Putin’s aspiration to build a long-term power structure based upon the fusion of the security bureaucracy and private and state-connected oligarchs. This also fits into the presidential-parliamentary republic model to which Russia formally belongs.
But putting this system into practice presents a greater challenge. It may lead to elite polarization around the two respective leaders (which actually started during the last Medvedev-Putin tandem). Besides, such a construct is neither acceptable to the proponents of strongman rule, nor to those calling for the regime’s decentralization and democratization. In fact, the last period of dual rule actually led to a decline in public confidence in government institutions and a decrease in Putin’s popularity.
Economic challenges are also particularly acute this time. The Russian economy has been stagnant for six years. A lack of competition on the domestic market and a weak state-run banking system oriented primarily on political (rather than market) incentives appear to be the key reasons. But this transition model will actually serve to preserve and even strengthen this quasi-market infrastructure.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget about the urbanites’ political agenda and Russia’s eternal longing for a Western lifestyle. This constituency lost political momentum after a spell of activity in 2011–2012. But it is likely to return to the political stage in the future—as soon as the post-Crimea conservative and patriotic wave recedes. Continuous stagnation will certainly contribute to this trend.
In any case, Medvedev’s reappointment highlights one of the possible scenarios over which Russia will struggle in the coming years. Vladimir Putin and his inner circle won’t be the only forces to determine what will happen next. Changes in elite interactions and public opinion will also play a critical role.
Despite its superficial simplicity, authoritarian legitimacy is quite a complex and delicate thing.
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