On June 15 Vladimir Putin will hold one of his trademark ‘Direct Line’ television spectaculars, an annual marathon at which he answers (carefully-curated) questions from the Russian public. In part this is a symbolic act, the tsar speaking directly to his people, and in part an unashamedly political one, a reaffirmation of his effortless control of the system. It comes at a time when, despite Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign and rumblings from the impoverished masses, he seems unassailable as he prepares for another coronation in the 2018 presidential elections. So why is there now so much more talk about life after Putin?
The media is sidling closer to this once-taboo topic, the question of who could replace the irreplaceable man now cloaked in discussion of who his next prime minister will be, or who will shape his post-2018 administration.
But most striking, if wholly subjective, were my own experiences recently in Moscow, where the kind of conversations once had around the kitchen table are now taking place publicly and openly. A question about Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu asked of a table of army officers segued quickly into a lively discussion about his presidential chances, even though several were still in uniform, and sitting in a crowded bar. (Their conclusion: he probably wouldn’t want the job, and in any case is likely excluded as he is not an ethnic Russian, but that he’d make a strong prime minister to support a more economically-minded president.) Even Russian graduate students asked me, a foreigner, whom I thought was next in line.
Of course, I have no idea. It is probably a dangerous move in such a system to be touted as the next president, when the present incumbent has not yet indicated there is a vacancy opening up. Nonetheless, it has become a popular chattering class parlour game to speculate about the next president and his (and it always is his) likely prime minister.
Dead man walking
The latter is of more immediate concern. Dmitry Medvedev is generally assumed to be a political dead man walking. He was promised another term as prime minister and so Putin – who may be willing to lie in his teeth about invading neighbouring countries but seems strangely old-fashioned about keeping his word to his own people – may let him limp along to 2018. However, a combination of his own gaffes, Navalny’s masterful campaign and a simple decay in his credibility and support base have all left him with one last role, as scapegoat-in-chief once Putin finally decides to drive him from the political village.
The choice of successor will rightly be scrutinised for clues about Putin’s intent. If a pure technocrat such as Shoigu or central bank chief Elvira Nabiullina is chosen as Medvedev’s successor, then they are not being groomed for the Kremlin.
If it is one of the younger, rising generation of politicians such as Minister for Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin or Energy Minister Alexander Novak, then the temptation would be to consider this only as a trial run. Putin, after all, will need a successor who is able to cope with a range of challenges, but who also appears “sound” on protecting both his legacy and also his personal future.
But if it is one of the existing heavyweights, such as First Deputy PM Igor Shuvalov, Deputy PM Arkady Dvorkovich, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, or maybe even Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (is his current reconstruction campaign part of a deeper political strategy?), then the rumour mill will start grinding as never before. Even if Putin considers them no more than of prime ministerial calibre, he will be giving the impression that they could be presidential, and also granting them a formidable power base.
Underlying all these assumptions – and that is all they are – is a belief that Putin is running out of steam, that he has no new ideas and a diminishing enthusiasm for the job. Rightly or wrongly, many blandly assert that if he felt he had a viable and reliable successor ready, he would not even be standing in 2018. Others wonder whether he actually did himself a disservice extending the presidential term to six years: will he want or be able to last out to 2024 (by which time he will be 71)?
Avatar of Russia
Nobody knows, or at least no one outside Putin’s closed and uncommunicative inner circle. But there is an extent to which such speculation becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Much of Putin’s authority and legitimacy, those 80%-plus approval ratings, comes not so much from anything he does, so much as what he is. Putin managed to make himself the avatar of Russia, a sacral figure rather than another squalid little politician scrabbling for votes.
This is the modern equivalent of divine right. Just as with the monarchs of the old order, once people begin to lose awe and faith, once they begin to treat the tsar’s position as something that another could fill, then the power can quickly wane.
We are nowhere near that point yet. Assuming Putin stands in 2018, there is no question that he will win, even without the massive use of so-called “administrative resources” to manufacture a triumph. But the very fact that people, even while accepting that, are already looking beyond then, to a post-Putin Russia, and beginning to have serious and open conversations about who should lead it and in what directions, suggests tectonic plates are moving.
Quite what this will mean neither we nor the brooding master of the Kremlin really know.
Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at UMV, the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.