Two months ago, on December 10, Putin endorsed soft-spoken and uncharismatic First Deputy Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev as his chosen successor. The next day, Medvedev made it known that he would support Putin becoming Russia's prime minister. Then, a week later, Putin completed the circle by agreeing to become prime minister if the 42-year-old Medvedev were elected president, an outcome that is effectively guaranteed in Russia's tightly controlled political system.
Putin had for some time coyly hinted that he would retain an influential role for himself, indicating on November 13 -- before December's parliamentary elections -- that a strong performance by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party would give him the "moral right" to keep a grip on power after he reached his constitutionally mandated two-term limit in 2008. Unified Russia unsurprisingly won a crushing victory on December 2 in what observers deemed to be patently unfair elections. This elaborate political choreography seems designed to craft a new and enduring role for Putin at the pinnacle of Russia's politics.
In his presidential news conference on February 14, 2008, Putin indicated his view on the matter, saying, "The premiership is not a transitional post." Speaking of the goals he set for Russia's development through the year 2020, Putin added, "If I can see that in this capacity [of prime minister] I can fulfill these goals, I will work as long as possible."
The Kremlin's succession rollout is noteworthy for its meticulousness, but Putin's project to retain political dominance represents part of a broader pattern in which the leaders of a regionally diverse and strategically relevant set of states are attempting to secure unchecked power. By pushing opposing voices to the sidelines and undercutting independent institutions, these rulers are doggedly pursuing a deeply illiberal model of governance: the leader for life.
A critical mass of "leaders for life" is entrenched in the former Soviet Union, where the prevailing method for retaining power has been the orchestration of referendums to lift constitutionally prescribed term limits.
For instance, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has ruled that country since 1990, pushed through constitutional changes last August that exempt him from term limits. He had already extended his term through a referendum in 1995. On August 18, 2007, Nazarbaev's party won nearly 90 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, sweeping all remaining opposition forces from the country's legislature. The constitutional changes in 2007 paved the way for Nazarbaev to remain in power indefinitely.
In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who first came to power in 1994, engineered a vote in October 2004 that removed presidential term limits. Lukashenka went on to receive 83 percent of the vote in April 2006 elections that the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights deemed neither free nor fair. With restraints no longer in place, the Belarusian leader has signaled his intention to run again in 2011.
In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon in 2003 pushed through a referendum that amended the constitution and opened the door for him to remain in power until 2020. Rahmon was head of state from 1992 to 1994, when he was elected president. A constitutional change in 1999, when he was reelected, increased presidential terms from five to seven years. In the 2006 presidential election, he was credited with 80 percent of the vote.
Uzbekistan's constitution currently states that the president is permitted to serve only two seven-year terms. President Islam Karimov, who assumed power as first secretary of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic's Communist Party in 1989, was elected president of independent Uzbekistan in 1992. In 1995, Karimov extended his presidential term until 2000. He was reelected in 2000 for another five-year term, but prolonged it to seven years through a national referendum in January 2002.
While his peers in post-Soviet states have at least made the effort to hold managed referendums that would extend their terms, Karimov dispensed with such legal niceties and in December 2007 stood again for reelection, ignoring the constitutional prohibition. The Uzbek leader, whose regime has expunged independent news media and civil society, faced no genuine opposition in the poll (in fact, all three "challengers" endorsed his candidacy). In the end, he was credited with 90 percent of the vote.
Keeping It In The Family
Other leader-for-life systems feature a dynastic twist. Former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev cleared the path for his son, Ilham, to carry on his legacy once the aging president proved too ill to rule himself. A 2002 referendum altered the presidential succession process so that the prime minister, rather than the speaker of parliament, would become acting president if the president resigned or became incapacitated. Ilham Aliyev was named prime minister soon thereafter. As Heydar Aliyev's health declined further in 2003, he withdrew his candidacy for reelection, allowing his son to coast to victory with 76 percent of the vote.
This phenomenon can be found beyond the former Soviet Union. In Syria, family rule has apparently been institutionalized. In Egypt and Libya, where the sitting leaders' tenures are measured in decades rather than years, conditions are also ripe for handing the presidency from father to son. In Cuba, a fraternal handoff of power is being completed.
Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, in power for nearly three decades, has presided over one of the most catastrophic societal implosions in recent history, and is now dragging what remains of his country into an economic, political, and social morass. According to government reports, Zimbabwe's annual inflation rate reached a mind-boggling 66,000 percent in December 2007, although some observers believe that this figure may understate the true magnitude of the problem. Mugabe, who turned 84 on February 21, is looking to secure a sixth term in office in elections to be held on March 29.
In December, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sought to push through a referendum on a new constitution that would have dramatically expanded his powers and done away with presidential term limits. This initiative was narrowly defeated. Chavez said after the vote, however, that his plans were only derailed "for now" and that his proposals to reform the constitution remained "alive." Despite growing public dissatisfaction with his rule, Chavez has stated his ambition to remain in power until 2050, when he will be 95 years old.
In Russia, the Kremlin's current succession gambit has largely adhered to the letter of the constitution, but the document's spirit is certainly being tested. Dmitry Medvedev is poised to assume the presidency, while Vladimir Putin will swap his current post for that of prime minister. The net result of this managed transfer of power is that there has been no meaningful debate of policy issues among a diverse range of political forces. The Russian public remains disconnected from the small elite that determines who holds and uses power.
Such controlled and insular politics clearly have profound drawbacks. The leader-for-life system creates a zero-sum, winner-takes-all approach to governing. And with unchecked power comes unchecked corruption. In fact, "hyper-corruption" is the soft underbelly of this model, in which accountability and transparency are all but nonexistent. It is no surprise that all of the countries in question are trapped at the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. For example, despite Putin's ambition to create a "dictatorship of law" and the prominence of anticorruption initiatives on the Kremlin's policy agenda, the scourge of corruption in Russia has grown in recent years. INDEM, a policy institute in Moscow, estimates that bribery and graft in Russia are now at the level of some $300 billion per year.
The oppressive dominance of the leaders for life smothers the institutions -- an independent judiciary, free media, and political opposition, among others -- that are essential not only for tackling massive corruption but also for improving the quality of public policy, thus preventing meaningful reform in the spheres of education, health, and public infrastructure.
For all of its obvious flaws, however, the leader-for-life phenomenon may have some staying power, especially in resource-rich states such as Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, where otherwise brittle regimes are cushioned by oil prices hovering around $100 per barrel. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the wave of democratization that washed across much of the globe in the last generation seemed to signal that life-presidencies had been cast onto the ash heap of history. Their survival suggests that this retrograde form of governance is more resilient than previously imagined.
(Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House.)