Putin, power and successors

February 1, 2020

Vladimir Putin has been in power for over twenty years. Russia is now unimaginable without his shadow silently lurking in the background. His fourth term of office (after taking a short break in 2008 by switching chairs with Dmitry Medvedev) will end in 2024. However, he has already begun the necessary precautions to stay in control for as long as possible. Clearly, he is not si mply the most important man in Russia, he is its most important institution. As Martia Lipman, an independent political analyst, argues, he must remain number one. In regards to how he achieves this, Putin has an abundance of examples. One of them is the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who recently became the constitutional head of the Security Council for life. Perhaps Putin decided to follow by announcing possible changes in the constitution. By doing this he is searching for his political heritage, fully acknowledging that he will remain in politics as one of the most important officers.

 

Under the revised constitution, the Duma would select the Prime Minister and approve most ministers and the president obliged to appoint them. This signals a relatively strong decentralisation of power, placing much of the factual control in the hands of the PM, whose term in office (contrary to the president’s), is not limited by the constitution. Nonetheless, the president still remains in charge of the Security Council and, even though there would be a need to ‘consult’ with the Federal Council, the position still retains substantial political influence. The reform also tries to stretch the Kremlin’s power to municipalities.  

For many political analysts, the move to change the constitution of Russia comes as a surprise because of its early timing. Putin’s future is now seen to be tied to the future of the changes in the constitution. Putin’s speech also signals that the previous game of switch-a-chair with Dmitry Medvedev is no longer a  sought after tactic. The end of the Presidential term means that Putin is abandoning his position, but by no means show his abandonment of power. As argued by Linas Kojala, director of the Eastern European Study Centre, it marks Russia’s evolution from ‘super-presidential’ to just presidential republic but never a parliamentary one. After all, Putin is a strong believer of Russia’s need for a strong political leader, a ruler, if need be.  

 

There are many reasons for such a decision. To begin with, Putin has understood that he no longer has the option to live without power. If he were to lose it, he would be threatened by many things he has tried to prevent. For example, Putin constantly states that any act of international law or a law passed by the International Court will never be above the law of Russia or its constitution. Putin also tries to safeguard himself from any threat, whether it’s political or judicial. Moreover, the reforms mark a move from stagnation, that has been in country’s politics for two years. Large political parties have anxiously waited for news in large-scale policy making so that they could adjust accordingly. It also means that Putin is setting himself up for a nice role, perhaps as the head of the party, Speaker of the Duma or chairman of the remade and soon-to-be powerful State Council. However, giving more power to the Duma might result in the previously declawed organisations regaining their influence, thus shaking the base of the ruling party ‘United Russia’ and consequently making the position of the Speaker or leader of the party less favourable to Putin. However, the more powerful PM’s position could be seen as appropriate for a person of such stature.

 

Just after Putin has announced about the planned changes in the constitution, Medvedev resigned, taking the whole Cabinet with him. The next day he was appointed the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council - an institution of immense importance, at times even more important than the Government. Since the 2012 election, it’s been clear that Medvedev is a subordinate and submissive politician. Therefore, the appointment of a politician so loyal to Putin might signify his will to strengthen personal control in the organisation. According to the constitution, the president is above the Security Council, however having an insider is tremendously beneficial, especially if power is being decentralised. It is necessary to note that no strong shifts in Russia’s political status quo have occurred. Medvedev remains the leader of the ‘United Russia’, meaning he retains his previous power. However, it is possible to speculate that he could take up the vacant position of the President in the future. He is also seen as more progressive and modern by Western politicians, making him a favourable candidate, but nevertheless – Putin’s marionette.

 

After the resignation of PM, the parliament ratified the new PM Mikhail Mishustin, ex-Director of the Federal Tax Service. His role is not yet fully understood. As it is common in Russia, new political leaders emerge without any ‘political spine’, being unknown to the public and previously having no actual political influence.  

 

Taking into consideration the length of Putin’s reign, his strengthening of Russian chauvinism, his vast political influence and connections, media control and his relatively stable popularity, it is hard to believe there would be someone to replace him, at least not in the foreseeable future. In addition, the political system created and enlarged by Putin, even after his death, could maintain and accommodate equally authoritarian leader, who would preserve the existence of authoritative power.

 

Photo: Mima Vladimir// Flickr

 

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