These days, more than ever, they are talking in Russia about the alleged plans to replace Mr. Putin with a new leader in 2024. At the same time, it is much more likely that the regime is in fact preoccupied with this assumption’s exact opposite: how to avoid a power transfer. There are at least two solid reasons why we believe it to be the case.
The first is that over the course of Mr. Putin’s tenure, power in Russia had been essentially concentrated in the hands of one man only—the President himself. While 11 years ago, in 2008, the so-called Medvedev-Putin “tandem” was still viable enough to last a short while, today, let alone five years down the road, in 2024, such a scenario would appear totally unrealistic—first and foremost, because in 2008, the entire Russian elite was enthusiastically expecting popular Mr. Putin to return to the country’s highest office in four years. Even those who were more or less amenable to Mr. Medvedev running for a second term signaled their acceptance of the above scenario. However, if Mr. Putin once again leaves his post as President in 2024, no one will expect him to return in 2030 when he is 78 years old.
Furthermore, it is not really essential what particular arrangements will be made for Mr. Putin to retain his leadership in an informal manner. It could be a special new post (as in the neighboring Kazakhstan), to which some of the presidential authority will be delegated. It could be the final nudge to Belarus to push through its reunification with Russia. Or it could be something else. The problem is that any of these solutions will require creating a second power center within the Russian government system. In 2008, the system did manage to handle it, although the effort was not problem-free. However, since then, the size of the system and corruption and inefficiency in its midst have grown tenfold, and this trend is likely to continue in the next five years. Even today, most of the important decisions are made subject to Mr. Putin’s “hands-on” management, and furthermore, this is often being done without sufficient prior research into the possible consequences of such decisions (the unfortunate decision to raise the retirement age and a number of new national projects that are already being revised come to mind). If government officials and State-owned corporations are forced to seek approval from two centers of power, a collapse may become imminent. Coupled with the fact that no one will believe in Mr. Putin’s coming back in 2030, this may cause him to begin rapidly losing real power once he leaves office in 2024.
The second reason why Mr. Putin just can’t leave is, in a way, an extension of the first. Power in Russia is not just concentrated in the hands of a president—any president, that is. It is all in President Putin’s hands. There is not a single person in the current Russian president’s entourage whom the inner circle would be willing to accept as their leader, the way they accept Mr. Putin. Any potential “successor”—be it Premier Medvedev, Moscow Mayor Sobyanin, State Duma speaker Volodin or anyone else—will inevitably encounter resistance from, and quite possibly, outright sabotage by some among Mr. Putin’s inner sanctum.
Even more importantly, although Mr. Putin’s ratings have suffered perceptibly over the past year, there is still not a single politician among his closest lieutenants who would be truly popular with the country’s electorate. Even Defense Minister Shoigu and Foreign Minister Lavrov are quite a few steps behind Mr. Putin. As to Mr. Medvedev, he has long become one of the country’s most reviled government officials. To be sure, the Russian regime remains fully in control of the electoral process and could still secure any desired outcome, almost regardless of who the candidate is. Yet, in reality, no unpopular winner will miraculously gain popularity just by being elected; furthermore, many among the elites will see it as a justification for their efforts to sabotage the new leader’s decisions. If, however, a new challenger favored by the public does emerge by the time of the next election, his popularity will be yet another reason for him to quickly push Mr. Putin aside, seeing how the country has grown wary of him.
Therefore, one could surmise that almost any scenario involving Mr. Putin leaving the presidency in 2024 would be much more risky, both for him and the entire Russian regime, than preserving the status quo. Come to think of it, Russian populace has made its peace with the “Putin forever” idea, and unless the country is hit with a massive economic crisis, his reelection for yet another term will likely be met with indifference. Therefore, as 2024 draws nearer, chances are we will see the “make no change” proposition in Russia entering into the picture and becoming ever more prominent.