Putin’s attempt to renew his mandate in the July 1 constitutional plebiscite is a challenge to those who surround him and a rejection of Russia’s changing reality. Essentially, he is banning his associates from looking around for a successor and from discussing their own future.
Russia is rapidly approaching a situation in which the public will lose the right to decide anything once and for all, because the authorities simply have no remaining political will or the resources to persuade the people.
Two key mobilizing events—the vote to change the constitution and the Victory Day parade—were supposed to force Russians to temporarily forget about their low incomes and stagnating GDP. The pandemic meant they had to be postponed. Now—as lockdown measures are lifted—the Kremlin is trying to return to the scenario of rallying around the flag.
The current crisis has exposed how the Russian regime has changed in several key ways. It is divided and lacks strategy, and President Putin shows no interest in giving it a new direction.
Putin has chosen the local governors to play the bad guys responsible for the health-care failures and personal constraints. For himself he has chosen the role of benefactor, bestowing gifts in the form of nonworking days and financial assistance.
The pandemic has revealed a truth of the Russian government. Vladimir Putin has become increasingly disengaged from routine matters of governing and prefers to delegate most issues.
The fight against the new coronavirus in Russia is being led not by politicians oriented on the public mood, but by managers serving their boss. This is why the authorities’ actions appear first insufficient, then excessive; first belated, then premature.
Putin’s move to extend his rule beyond its expected end in 2024 has worked against the president. Meanwhile, the new coronavirus and falling ruble have proved more effective than any action by the opposition aimed at damaging Putin’s ratings.
Consistency and predictability in Russian politics have all but died. Something extraordinary is unfolding right before people’s eyes: one immutable value (Putin) is destroying another (stability).
Whether Putin wanted to be persuaded to stay on, was testing his entourage for their readiness for a power transition, or was simply waiting for the right moment, we may never know. But there is no evidence that he was preparing to choose a successor.