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Kremlin's four-hour presser leaves key question unanswered: after Putin, what next?

putting it in perspective

Russia's 2018 presidential election will likely not be a cliffhanger. What happens in 2024, when President Putin could end an unprecedented fourth term, is far less clear. He does have a plan, experts say – but it's not necessarily handing off power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he looks at his spokesman Dmitry Peskov during an annual news conference in Moscow on Dec. 14, 2017.
Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/AP
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Caption

Vladimir Putin, a politician at the height of his powers and now launching his bid for an unprecedented fourth presidential term, met the world media in the Kremlin today. As usual, he came off as poised, magisterial, and even a bit jovial. 

In just under four hours Mr. Putin answered scores of questions, some of them quite minute and detailed, about domestic and foreign policy. It’s a familiar format for Russians, who see Putin onstage taking questions twice a year: once in a meet-the-media presser like today, and once in a marathon electronic town hall spectacle in which he interfaces with people around the country.

Though Russians are used to it by now, millions watch both events attentively, especially as he often addresses issues like housing, taxes, public transportation, pensions and other economic data that intimately concerns them.

But analysts say he has yet to answer the key question of this political moment in Russia: What comes after Putin?

Opinion surveys suggest that he will walk to victory in presidential polls slated for March – not much of a cliffhanger, since he faces no serious opponent – and be duly ensconced in the Kremlin for another six-year term.

Yet many believe this will be his last turn in this particular role. Russia’s constitution, which he has previously honored – after a fashion – limits a president to two consecutive terms. Yet after nearly 18 years in power, including a four-year hiatus (when he occupied the job of prime minister) while his place-holder Dmitry Medvedev held the office, no obvious successor has been groomed. Nor has any reliable mechanism been established, democratic or otherwise, that would guarantee a stable transition if Putin were to exit the stage.

Though Putin took the opportunity of today’s presser to warn that Russia’s largely sidelined opposition would bring only “chaos” if they came to power, he offered not a single clue about what a Russia after Putin might look like.

“This version of the Russian state is totally centered around Putin, and could not survive without him,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the left-wing Institute of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. “Putin stays, not because he wants to but because he cannot be replaced without undermining the system. Nobody wants to see a chaotic transition, but over many years of talking about it they have failed utterly to find a formula for an orderly one.”

2018 contenders

Presidential elections in Russia are generally a predictable affair. The incumbent, Putin, faces an array of old party leaders whose constituencies are already well-defined, such as Communist Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky.

Often there is a tame “wild card” option, to make things interesting. This time that role falls to liberal celebrity Ksenia Sobchak, who actually came face-to-face with Putin in today's presser.

“Everyone knows that being an opposition politician in Russia means being killed, jailed. Why is this the case? Are the authorities afraid of real competition?” Ms. Sobchak asked him, representing the independent Dozhd TV channel, where she hosts a news show. She also wondered aloud why Alexei Navalny, the real leader of Russia’s beleaguered opposition, remains barred from running due to what many regard as a politically-motivated criminal conviction.

Putin responded, without even mentioning Mr. Navalny’s name, by suggesting the opposition represents an insurrectionist alternative, referencing the Maidan revolt that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev almost 4 years ago. “We don't want a second edition of today’s Ukraine for Russia, do we?” Putin said.

“He didn’t answer Sobchak’s question,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser turned critic. “In the past he usually had an answer to the questions of the opposition, at least for propaganda purposes. Now, he's not even embarrassed by such things.”

At the outset of Thursday’s press conference, Putin announced that he will be running as an independent, not nominated by any political party. That suggests he now feels confident separating himself from the political system he has created, and need not feel beholden to any political forces once he has achieved reelection.

Next step: reform?

It seems likely that Putin does have a plan, experts say, but it is not necessarily one that involves handing his undisputed presidential powers to anyone else.

Putin has in the past spoken of evolving Russia’s existing political system, perhaps to invest more power in the parliament. Some analysts believe that he will introduce sweeping constitutional reform early in his new term, but few think it will be aimed at broadening the democratic process.

“At the moment, what happens in six years is not of interest to the public,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

With the country painfully emerging from a two-year economic recession, most Russians seem immersed in daily struggles. Putin has been a fact of life for almost two decades, during which he has ensured stability, brought a measure of economic prosperity, and even restored Russia's international power. Analysts agree that inner-Kremlin strategists may be thinking about the future shape of Russian governance, but most Russians probably are not.

“There are a lot of different ideas floating around,” Mr. Makarkin adds. “But Putin’s decision, announced today, to run as an independent candidate shows that he does not intend to lean on [the pro-Kremlin party] United Russia in the future. It seems likely that his next term will focus on constructing a new system of power in Russia.”

A new setup would sidestep the problem of succession by keeping Putin in the Kremlin, perhaps in a reduced role, but as a reassurance to elites and public alike that no radical upsets can occur. It would also block opposition hopefuls from imagining that they might one day capture the all-powerful presidency that presently exists at the ballot box.

Nikolai Petrov, an expert at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, predicts that Putin will opt for a president-for-life setup that keeps the leader in place but devolves powers to parliament or a special new body that will be set up, perhaps similar to the constitutional changes enacted this year in neighboring Kazakhstan, to keep in place President Nursultan Nazarbayev, first elected in 1991.

“There is lots of room to redesign the system, and there is nobody to resist whatever changes Putin decides upon,” Mr. Petrov says. “Perhaps he will opt for a weaker presidency, but don’t expect him to ever leave.”

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