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Putin's 2024 Problem: Election Win Raises Curtain On Clouded Future


Few Russians expect President Vladimir Putin to relinquish the reins altogether in 2024, when he faces term limits. But can he find a way to retain power without losing his legitimacy?

When a friend told Ilya Barabanov that he would vote for the very first time on March 18 -- and vote to keep President Vladimir Putin in office until 2024 -- the journalist had to ask why.

"At least it's some sort of guarantee that he'll be gone in six years," came the reply.

Don't count on it.

Now that Putin has been declared the winner, the clock starts ticking on what could be his final stint as president, because the Russian Constitution imposes a limit of two consecutive terms.

But few believe that will stop the man who has been president or prime minister since August 1999 from looking for ways to continue to call the shots after 2024.

"Nobody here expects him to retire to fishing," said Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based analyst and former Russian diplomat.

The trick for Putin, analysts said, is to come up with a solution that satisfies both his thirst for power and his hunger for legitimacy.

Putin has faced the problem of term limits before, and finessed it. Barred from seeking a third term in 2008, he staged an informal but tension-filled contest among potential successors and chose Dmitry Medvedev, steering the younger man into the Kremlin and biding his time as prime minister to gain eligibility to return to the presidency in 2012.

This time around, it may not be so easy: There are additional potential pitfalls for Putin in a new bid to retain power without actually being president.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend a United Russia party convention in Moscow on December 23.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend a United Russia party convention in Moscow on December 23.

For one thing, there's his age. Now 65 -- already the average life expectancy for a man in Russia -- Putin will be 77 the next time he would be eligible to run for president, in 2030.

That makes a repeat of the "castling" move he choreographed with Medvedev risky. And besides, many Russians were dismayed the first time he did it, with the announcement that he and Medvedev were switching back to their previous jobs sparking sustained protests in 2011-12. Putin weathered those, but performing the same trick again could lead to unpredictable results.

Mark Galeotti, an author on Russia and a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said that Putin "will have failed" at his own game if he resorts to returning to the presidency in 2030.

Speaking to reporters late on March 18, when it was clear that he had secured reelection, Putin suggested that he would not run in 2030 and said he has no plans to change the constitution -- for the time being.

Galeotti believes that while Putin does not intend to retire to "a little cottage with roses at the door," he would like to "take a step away from the tedious business of running Russia, if he can."

But stepping too far away could be dangerous, leaving Putin with little control over the country, his legacy, and even his own security and that of his allies in the ruling elite.

People here love what he is doing abroad and unless the costs of this policy of trolling the West become really biting for average Russians, he has no incentive to reverse course."
-- Vladimir Frolov, analyst and former Russian diplomat

Ironically, the authoritarian methods Putin has used to consolidate power over nearly two decades have made any post-Putin era more dangerous not just for allies, but for Putin himself. Having undermined the rule of law, rights, and institutions of democracy, critics say, he cannot rely on those institutions -- such as the courts -- to protect him if power slips from his grasp.

Putin "needs a safety net for himself," said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and chairman of its program on domestic Russian politics. What strategy Putin will choose for 2024 and beyond "depends on a million factors," he said.

Power Vs. Legitimacy

Many analysts predict he will take a two-pronged approach, grooming a successor to take his place as president while engineering changes that would ensure he maintains a prominent place in the power structure.

One of the more plausible solutions would be to enhance the prominence and authority of one of the institutions that Putin now uses to exercise and display his power -- such as the State Council, an advisory body that includes senior legislators, regional governors, and party chiefs -- and take its helm when he leaves the presidency.

While that might require a change in the constitution, it could enable him to retain power without staying on as president. After carefully sidestepping term limits once in a highly visible effort to keep his adherence to the letter of the law intact, abolishing them now could leave his reputation in tatters.

Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds after parliament passed a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limits.
Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds after parliament passed a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limits.

Kremlin-watchers said Putin may be thrilled that China has removed presidential term limits from its constitution, giving current leader and “helmsman” Xi Jinping the right to remain in power indefinitely. Against that backdrop, Putin could potentially make a less blatant change in Russia's power structure and achieve a similar result while appearing less undemocratic.

Frolov's prediction: Putin will "engineer something visibly different but substantively the same" as what China has done for Xi, enabling him to remain in a position of power -- whatever that position may be -- indefinitely.

The election campaign gave Putin the opportunity to step up his efforts to cultivate the image of an indispensable leader who is uniquely suited to govern Russia.

While Putin steered clear of presidential debates and held few formal campaign events, a series of fawning films casting him in just that role -- a strong and decisive leader -- came out in the final few weeks before the vote.

In one of them, explaining that Russia might retaliate with nuclear weapons if attacked, Putin said that the result would be a "catastrophe" for the world, but added: "As a Russian citizen and head of the Russian state, I ask myself the question: Why do we need a world without Russia in it?"

Senior Putin allies have long portrayed him as Russia's only possible leader, and as the election approached there were calls -- from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, among others -- for him to remain in power for life. In 2014, Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin -- now speaker of the State Duma -- said that "there is no Russia today if there is no Putin."

But someday there will be. And such myth making, combined with the sheer length of time he has been in office -- Putin was already president when some Russians who voted for the first time on March 18 were born -- may only add to the tension over Putin's choice of a successor.

Bulldogs Under The Rug

While the prospect that Putin may hold power after 2024 could leave him less vulnerable than a traditional lame duck, the March 18 election sounded the starting gun for what is likely to be a tense struggle for political survival amid uncertainty about what kind of configuration Putin will try forge to keep his grip on Russia from slipping.

Russians got an unseemly glimpse of the turbulence troubling Putin's ruling elite with the remarkable 2017 trial of former Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who was convicted of taking a $2 million bribe after allegedly accepting a bag full of cash from Igor Sechin, a close Putin ally and the head of state oil giant Rosneft, after an agreement reached over billiards in Goa.

Former Russian Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev in court in Moscow on December 15.
Former Russian Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev in court in Moscow on December 15.

The sight of the once well-fed member of the establishment in court, looking gaunt and haunted as he asserted he had been set up, might have made other prominent Russians worry about their future even had he not warned them by quoting from John Donne in his closing statement, saying, "Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

While a "key task" for Putin during his new term may be "identifying, prepping, and introducing his successor," it is likely that "competing elite groups within the Kremlin will also be engaged in identifying potential successors," the London-based think tank Chatham House said shortly before the election.

Putin, however, seems likely to try to avoid visible clashes in his selection of a successor. Unlike in 2007, when he seemed to set up and stoke a competition between Medvedev and a more hawkish ally, Sergei Ivanov, Putin may want a more tightly scripted selection process this time.

Several names have already surfaced, from youngsters such as Economic Development Minister Maksim Oreshkin, 35, and Kremlin chief of staff Anton Vaino, 46, to more well-known figures such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu -- who is seen as staunchly loyal -- and even Medvedev.

But having one's name crop up as potential successor may be the last thing a potential successor would want at this early stage. Like in the backstabbing days of the Soviet Politburo, when showing ambition meant risking being slapped down or worse, anyone who stands out or seems to hold Putin's favor is likely to come under intense pressure from rival figures or factions.

As a result, Putin may bide his time before anointing the chosen one. Kolesnikov believes he will not decide on a post-2024 strategy, let alone reveal a favored successor, until after the next parliamentary elections, in 2021.

While Putin avoided changing the constitution to stay in the Kremlin in 2008, one of Medvedev’s biggest actions when he took office was to extend future presidential terms to six years instead of four. Speculation that the move would end up benefiting Putin turned out to be spot on.

So with another six years stretching before him after his inauguration in May, Putin has plenty of time -- or does he?

In some ways, he is in a pretty good place, both politically and economically.

His popularity ratings are high and his opponents are in disarray. Officials have indicated that his nemesis Aleksei Navalny, the most prominent Kremlin foe, will be barred from elections until about 2028 due to a conviction he claims is a farce -- and Kolesnikov said that ban will last "as long as Putin is politically alive."

Russia pulled out of a two-year recession in 2017, despite the fact that Western sanctions over its aggression in Ukraine and other actions remain in place. Inflation has fallen, and Moscow easily found buyers for $4 billion in debt on the Eurobond markets two days before the election.

As for foreign policy, Putin may see little reason for change: His showy defiance of the West has long been a factor in his popularity. The independent pollster Levada Center's last survey before the campaign, conducted in November 2017, put his approval rating at 81 percent.

"People here love what he is doing abroad and unless the costs of this policy of trolling the West become really biting for average Russians, he has no incentive to reverse course," Frolov said.

Stay The Course?

Frolov made the comment before the poisoning of a former double agent and his daughter in Britain made Russia’s badly strained relations with the West even worse. But there is little evidence to suggest accusations that Russia unleashed a deadly nerve toxin in the middle of an English city have cost Putin support at home.

Still, both opponents and Kremlin-watchers say that Putin's poll numbers and landslide reelection win hide simmering dissatisfaction, among many Russians, with their economic prospects and the airless political atmosphere.

After plunging oil prices and Western sanctions hit Russia hard in 2014, the worst may be over economically, at least for now. But no expansion in the foreseeable future is likely to match the oil-fueled growth that stoked Putin's popularity during his first two terms, from 2000-08. In an address to the nation on March 1, he called for a 150 percent increase in per capita GDP over six years -- but said nothing about how to do it.

"Putin has no economic program, no idea what to do with our economy moving forward," liberal economist and presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky said ahead of the vote, warning that the government's "unpredictable policy" poses "a serious risk for our country."

Yavlinsky was one of four candidates on track to receive less than 1 percent of the vote, according to partial results -- a testament to Putin's dominance of the political scene and the challenge dissenting voices face in gaining purchase.

A Matter Of Time

But while Putin may not have faced much of a challenge from any of the candidates, Galeotti said he is at risk as a result of "growing disillusion with the system" he has put in place, a "clear dissatisfaction with, if not Putin, then Putinism."

Those frustrations make the public mood unpredictable, and make Putin's rule shakier than it may seem. He could coast for six years -- or face a game-changing problem that could swiftly undermine his power.

Such considerations could prompt Putin to make his move earlier, engineering a transition long before 2024, Galeotti said.

In the meantime, analysts said, Putin is unlikely to loosen the strings, let up on opponents, or take steps toward greater democracy in his fourth term.

There is "no hope for liberalization," Kolesnikov said. "This is the one-track road of a really authoritarian regime."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is news editor of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He has lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union off and on -- mostly on -- since 1989, including postings in Moscow with the Associated Press and Reuters.

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