On the 19th of March, Vladimir Putin was confirmed as the winner of the 2018 Russian presidential election. He secured over 76% of the vote, a record high – even for him. On the surface there is something surreal about this feat, given that it was accomplished without Putin so much as issuing a policy programme for the campaign. But in Putin’s Russia the election was a mere formality. Having secured his fourth and presumably final presidential term, Putin is now set to be in power until 2024. Only Stalin will have ruled for longer in the country’s history. Now that the electoral ritual is over, questions of what Putin’s new presidential term will look like and what will happen in six years time are ripe for discussion.
Draining the bureaucratic swamp
Putin’s state-of-the-nation speech on the 1st of March gave the clearest indication yet as to what both Russians and the rest of the world can expect over the next six years. Putin above all emphasized the need for modernization and technological progress in Russia. The word “reform”, however, was not included once in the nearly two-hour address. The prospect of structural reforms was predictably shunned, with modernization reserved only for the country’s nuclear arsenal. Democratisation is highly unlikely, as any attempt to reform the Russian political system would risk Putin and his inner circle losing their power and wealth. Self-preservation is Putin’s priority: he will maintain the stagnant status quo in order to survive. Following Brezhnev’s model, where Putin lauds stability, the West sees stagnation.
Even if factions in favour of reform were to gain more influence, the likelihood of successfully carrying out long-term reforms are negligible. This is because Putin and his inner circle maintain such a tight hold on power. Any organization or action that is not sanctioned by the state is seen as illegitimate and even dangerous. Therefore, Putin can keep reform-minded groups in check, limiting their influence. This statist model means that the state bureaucracy is naturally continually overstretched. It does not have the time or means to review everything on an individual basis and so frequently grinds to a halt. Unclogging these blockages will be a struggle, and won’t be achieved unless the state bureaucracy is decentralized.
Thriving abroad, failing at home
Despite Putin’s best efforts to prove the opposite; at home the Russian state is struggling. Quality of life remains low for ordinary Russians, civil activism is suppressed, and the regions are in serious debt. The tragic fire at a leisure complex in the Siberian city of Kemerovo that left 64 people dead, many of them children, has highlighted the acute crisis that it is enveloping Russian domestic politics. Putin and his cronies are living comfortably in Moscow, whereas ordinary Russians further afield are suffering interminably.
However, Putin successfully diverts attention from problems at home by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy abroad. The fact that the election was held on the fourth-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea highlights the significance of the event as a cornerstone of the regime’s legitimacy. In the so-called post-Crimea era, anti-Western rhetoric has seen a severe spike. The recent controversy over alleged Russian involvement in the poisoning of former double agent, Sergei Skripal, on British soil, is just the latest instance of increasingly tense relations between Russia and the West. Putin, however, claims that such hostility towards his country is baseless and therefore has been able to paint Russia as a fortress besieged by hostile foreigners. In short, everything is justified because Russia is at war with the West.
In search of an heir…
Russia has a history of chaotic transitions of power, especially after years of authoritarian rule. Tsar Nicholas II was replaced by the uproar of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin by Khrushchev’s chaotic attempts at liberalization, and Gorbachev by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin faces a similar challenge when he presumably gives up the reigns in 2024, as demanded by the constitution. Although he could technically repeat a similar arrangement to his switch with Dmitrii Medvedev in 2008, such a brazen attempt to undermine the constitution would likely be met with huge protests in the vein of the 2011-2012 Bolotnaya rallies, the largest in Russia since the 1990s. Putin’s greatest fear is a liberal, colour revolution, as seen in Georgia and Ukraine, so he will not run the risk of sparking one unnecessarily.
The main problem for Putin’s Russia is that the state has become so personified by Putin’s leadership that when he finally abandons his throne, there will likely be a power vacuum. Putin has built his legitimacy as leader on saving Russia from the chaos of the Yeltsin years. For a man who famously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, Putin above all fears a repeat of such upheaval and doesn’t want his legacy to be damaged by a chaotic transition of power.
However, because of Putin’s personal, authoritarian system, Russia has not developed the institutions necessary to facilitate a peaceful transition of power. At present there is no viable alternative to Putin. He has made it this way, not allowing one faction or personality to assert themselves ahead of others. The longer Putin waits to choose his heir, the more destructive potential clashes between competing factions will be. If Putin does indeed name an heir, it will be difficult to see his successor as anything more than a puppet, behind which Putin will continue to pull the strings.
This, however, does not mean that Putin has not started moulding a new political class for Russia’s future. The last two years of his rule have been characterized by mass re-shuffles in the state and regional bureaucracy: between 2016-2017 Putin has replaced a staggering 35% of Russia’s governors. The message is clear: Putin is grooming a new crop of affiliated governors, who will preserve his system. The more striking side to these re-shuffles is the promotion of a group of young technocrats. Eager not to repeat Brezhnev’s gerontocracy, Putin, who will be seventy-one years old by the end of his fourth term, has tried to avert this risk by handpicking promising young politicians for key positions. Maxim Oreshkin, the thirty-five year old Minister for Economic Development, is a salient example. However, at present this injection of youth into an ageing regime shows no sign of directly impacting the make-up of the political system, as Putin will not allow it.
This new generation of young technocrats are more conciliatory towards the West. Unlike Putin’s trusted cronies, they did not grow up in the era of divisive Cold-War rhetoric and so see cooperation with the West as an opportunity to modernize Russia politically and economically, rather than as a threat to Russian prestige. Whilst Putin appears as the chiselled, ageing face of his regime, these technocrats are in fact the organs, pumping blood around the decaying body of the Russian state. Putin will have no choice but to implement the economic reforms, advocated most prominently by Alexei Kudrin and his liberal faction, if Russia’s GDP continues to stagnate and the country’s dependence on oil and gas remains unchallenged.
Russian history shows us that unwillingness to name an heir can prove fatal to the regime’s survival. The end of Putin’s presidency is perhaps now in sight, but who will take over remains deliberately unclear. Putin, however, favours predictability, so one can be sure that he will do his best to guarantee that his legacy lives on.