For a decade and a half, Vladimir Putin has sat at the top of a closed, hierarchical, and personality-based political system that allows for no competition.
As a result, opinion polls in Russia routinely show the public sees "no alternative" to Putin's leadership.
So what would happen in Russia if Putin suddenly and without warning left the political stage? Over the last few days, we have seen the anxiety that even the rumor of such an event can produce in Russia and around the world. If Putin is the guarantor of stability in Russia, then does a scenario without Putin automatically imply instability -- even violent instability?
The Constitutional Scenario
Formally, of course, Russia has a constitution and a process for handling a president's incapacity. Article 92 of the Russian Constitution states that if the president is unable to fulfill the duties of the office -- although the process for declaring him incapacitated is unclear -- the prime minister would become acting president and a new presidential election would be held within three months.
The acting president would not have the power to disband the Duma, schedule a referendum, or alter the constitution.
Under Russian election law, each party represented in the State Duma -- United Russia, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and A Just Russia -- would have the right to nominate a candidate. Other parties would have to scramble to assemble the required 100,000 signatures and get them approved by the Central Election Commission in such a tight time frame.
So if Putin unexpectedly left the scene and the constitution were followed to the letter, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would return to the Kremlin and a competitive election would take place in three months.
The Consensus Scenario
Of course, such a smooth and legal transition of power is unlikely in Russia.
In Soviet times, political heavyweights wrestled behind the scenes until a successor emerged through some unfathomable communist alchemy.
More recently, when President Boris Yeltsin decided to retire, political insiders reached a consensus and produced the unimaginable candidacy of Vladimir Putin as his successor. They then used a combination of their financial, administrative, and media resources to get him elected.
Yeltsin's inner circle, despite its divisions, had the benefit of time in making its decision. In addition, they also had the experience of reaching a similar crucial consensus during the period around the 1996 presidential election, when the major oligarchs agreed to work together to reelect the ailing and increasingly unpopular Yeltsin.
The Conflict Scenario
But what if consensus can't be reached?
Under Putin, the political system has become more personalized and centered around the president himself, who has balanced conflicting parties. And he has almost certainly stifled all discussion of what could or should happen in a post-Putin era.
But the divisions in Putin's inner circle, always latent, have become more manifest with the Ukraine crisis and have intensified since the February 27 assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.
"Now the conflict between the clans has become very seriously intense," says journalist and analyst Raf Shakirov. "It is obvious that different groups are pushing for different paths."
The main fault line, he says, is between "hawks" who have become ascendant due to the Ukraine crisis and Russia's showdown with the West and a "liberal group" responsible for the economy who would prefer a thaw at home and a rapprochement abroad.
The former group, Shakirov says, will probably fight fiercely in any transition to preserve their primacy. "This group understands that for them any normalization would mean, not the end of the world, but a loss of position," Shakirov says. "They cannot risk the loss of the almost unlimited power that they have now."
Likewise, political analyst Marat Guelman sees conflict as the likely scenario. These are "people who have tasted lawlessness, who already feel that they have the right to break the law, to kill," he says in reference to the Kremlin hard-liners.