Lame-Duck Putinism

Putin at Desk

(Article ©2017 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org Brian Whitmore – September 1, 2017 – also appeared at rferl.org/a/lame-duck-putinism/28709290.html)

An association of “patriotic entrepreneurs” is proposing that the Russian central bank issue a new 10,000 ruble banknote featuring Vladimir Putin’s likeness.

Now you can read that a couple ways. The simplest, of course, is that it’s nothing more than the latest example of over-the-top leader worship and Putin adulation, the latest manifestation of a personality cult run amok.

And that may well be the case. But there’s also another way to look at it, especially when you consider that sitting presidents — even sitting authoritarian presidents — are rarely pictured on their country’s currency.

Despite the fact that Putin is widely expected to seek — and all but certain to win — a fourth term in the Kremlin in March, there appears to be a growing realization that after 18 years, the Putin era is actually entering its final lap.

There’s a specter haunting the Russian elite. The specter of Putin as a lame duck.

And this is manifesting itself in more ways than proposals to put the Kremlin leader’s likeness on the Russian currency.

In recent weeks, Russian pundits, media, and think tanks have been increasingly — and very openly — speculating about something that not so long ago was considered entirely taboo: life after Putin.

The prominent sociologist Sergei Belanovsky recently wrote on Facebook, for example, that “the Putin era is coming to an end” and that “this is an incontrovertible fact which doesn’t depend on how much longer he remains president.”

The St. Petersburg Politics Foundation recently published rankings of potential Putin successors — rankings that were amplified by major Russian media.

Earlier this summer, the pro-Kremlin daily Moskovsky Komsomolets openly raised questions about Putin’s health, noted a “feeling of uncertainty and instability” among the elite, and played guessing games about who might replace him.

And Putin himself recently contributed to all the speculation by talking publicly about the qualities he thinks a Russian leader should have.

This is all a far cry from three years ago, when Vyacheslav Volodin, then the deputy Kremlin chief of staff, famously said that “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin.”

Putinism In Winter

So while Putin clearly isn’t going anywhere right now, the system he created seems to be bracing for the fact that his next term in the Kremlin will probably be his last.

The Kremlin leader, after all, will turn 65 in October. If he completes another six year term as president, he’ll be 71.

And what then? Does Putin change or ignore the Russian Constitution and seek a third consecutive term in 2024 — a move that would effectively amount to declaring himself president for life?

Does he try to repeat the so-called “castling” and anoint a placeholder president as he did with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008-12 — and triumphantly return to the Kremlin in 2030 at the age of 77?

Either is possible, but probably unlikely.

And, as a result, Putin’s courtiers and the broader Russian elite are preparing for a prolonged and potentially unstable period that will be largely consumed by intrigue about what happens next.

According to the well-connected political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko’s latest Politburo 2.0 report on the Russian elite, “realistic discussions about a successor will begin with the preparations for the 2021 parliamentary elections.”

Minchenko added that “it is possible that a special post-presidential status will be created for Putin,” something akin to a “Russian ayatollah.”

But even if it is made clear that Putin will remain Russia’s de facto ruler even after leaving the presidency — assuming a status similar to that once enjoyed by Deng Xiaoping in China, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, or currently enjoyed by the Supreme Leader in Iran — it would still spell the end of the current era.

Moreover, the Russian presidency would remain a very powerful institution, and the battle for who gets it post-Putin, and the jockeying for position in the new order, promises to be fierce.

The Ghosts Of 1999 — And 2008

The high-profile arrest of former Economics Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, which is widely believed to have been orchestrated by Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, appears to be the first manifestation of the coming turbulence.

Ulyukayev was the first sitting minister arrested and prosecuted since the Stalin era.

The case appears to be connected to Sechin’s efforts to control the energy industry and the push back this has generated within a faction of the elite that is determined not to allow him to accumulate more power and resources.

Minchenko predicts that such infighting will intensify after the presidential election in March, with Putin’s inner circle splitting into two camps: “mobilizers” like National Guard commander Viktor Zolotov and Rostek head Sergey Chemezov and “modernizers” like Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

Veteran Kremlin-watcher and former U.S. State Department official Donald Jensen, currently a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, notes that “Russia’s elites long had seemed to be cemented together by Putin’s authority, or the need to protect cash flows, or the need to circle the wagons against what they believe to be a hostile West. Now the cement seems to be weakened.”

This is all reminiscent of previous periods when a transition was looming.

As Putin’s second term drew to a close in 2007-08, rivalries in the security services descended into an open and violent conflict that became known as the “siloviki war.”

And the twilight of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in 1999 was marked by a vicious conflict between two factions of the elite, open rebellion in the regions, a war in the Caucasus, and a series of suspicious apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities.

Writing in Republic.ru, the opposition journalist and political commentator Oleg Kashin called the lack of experience with orderly presidential successions the “dramaturgical defect of contemporary Russian statehood.”

And the dramaturgy is about to begin anew.