Vladimir Putin dominates Russian politics, but legally he can only serve two terms
Shaun Walker Moscow Correspondent
Less than six weeks before a presidential vote, Russia should be right in the thick of a heated election campaign. But with Vladimir Putin’s victory on 18 March all but in the bag, the thoughts of the Russian elite are occupied with a much bigger electoral problem: what happens at the next vote, in 2024?
With nothing much at stake this time around, the Kremlin’s most pressing problem for the 2018 vote is ensuring enough people show up on polling day to make the turnout percentage respectable – which the opposition are trying to bring down through calls for a boycott. The problems on the 2024 horizon are far more serious.
Over the years, Putin’s dominance over the Russian political landscape has grown. Vicious battles may be going on behind the scenes, but a Kremlin without Putin as the ultimate arbiter seems hard to imagine now. Vyacheslav Volodin, a key Putin aide who is now the speaker of the Russian parliament, said in 2014: “If there is Putin, there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia.”
By 2024, Putin will be 72. He currently shows little sign of illness, and could feasibly enjoy another decade of good physical and mental health. Under Putin, the influence of other players on the political playing field has been decimated, so there are very few politicians with any real kind of independent support base or profile.
But, according to the Russian constitution, the president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms, meaning Putin is obliged to step down. He already got around this requirement once: after governing for two four-year terms between 2000 and 2008, Putin stepped aside to become the prime minister between 2008 and 2012, while his trusted long-term associate Dmitry Medvedev kept the presidential seat warm.
He returned in 2012, with a newly elongated six-year presidential term. Now, the defining issue of his upcoming fourth term is likely to be the question of succession. As the country gears up for an election in which the only candidate who has mounted a real campaign, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, has been barred from standing, the 2024 question is the one that everyone is thinking about but nobody dares to voice publicly.
“I don’t think Putin has made a decision yet about what he will do in 2024,” said one source close to the Kremlin. “He always likes to postpone a decision if it can be made tomorrow rather than today.”
The source said Putin had already shown in 2008 that he was not minded to change the Russian constitution, and suggested that Putin might promote a member of his inner circle to president and take on a ceremonial role such as speaker of the Duma, which would allow him to keep overall control. Already, there is frequent speculation about potential candidates for Putin’s handpicked successor, though Putin himself has given little clue of his thinking.
“Looked at from today’s perspective it’s hard to see any eventuality where Putin doesn’t take some kind of major role after 2024. Of course everyone is thinking about it, constantly. The elites are scared,” said another source, close to the presidential administration.
For years, turf wars and battles between powerful members of the Russian elite have been settled privately, with Putin acting as referee where required. In recent months, there have been signs of the kind of fights that could become more commonplace in Putin’s next presidential term.
Most startlingly, the former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev was sentenced to eight years in prison in December for allegedly soliciting a bribe from Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s most powerful right-hand men. Sechin, the only witness, did not turn up to court, and the evidence appeared flimsy at best, and yet Putin was either unable or unwilling to intervene.
Russia watcher Mark Galeotti has written that the Ulyukayev verdict showed Putinism had reached its “ancien régime” stage: “Putin is fiddling while the Russia he has committed himself to building, begins to burn.”
The lukewarm level of competition in the current electoral campaign has disappointed even pro-Kremlin stalwarts. “We wanted to make the elections interesting, but we’ve failed, that’s pretty clear. We need to bring real issues to the fore but the elite is against it,” said the source close to the presidential administration.
With the result in little doubt, intrigue around the elections is linked to third-tier issues. Moscow’s chattering classes have been convulsed with long discussions about whether to support the liberal socialite and journalist Ksenia Sobchak, who critics describe as a Kremlin stooge intended to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the vote. The Communists have decided against fielding their long-standing leader, Gennady Zyuganov, in favour of a younger collective farm boss, Pavel Grudinin, a big surprise. None of these issues is likely to have much effect on the outcome, however, and the main concern for the Kremlin remains ensuring a respectable turnout, which is likely to require pressure on state workers to vote as well as potential ballot-stuffing in far-flung regions.
Even Putin appears to be struggling to find enthusiasm for another electoral campaign, and is short on big ideas. When asked about his programme at the end of last year, he was remarkably vague: “Specifically, it has to do with infrastructure development, healthcare and education. This is also about high technology and improving labour efficiency,” he said. He has failed to give much of a sense of what the dominant themes of his new presidency would be.
While the Kremlin has blocked Navalny from standing in 2018 he has nevertheless run an impressive campaign and the creation of regional hubs and a network of volunteers across the country is seen as preparation for the long-term political future.
Worried supporters of Putin also have their eye on the long-term. “Our problem is not 2018, our problem is 2024,” said Konstantin Malofeyev, a financier with Kremlin connections. He has backed an organisation calling for a return to the monarchy and hinted that Putin could fill the role of a new tsar – a solution few expect to transpire but which illustrates the lack of current alternatives.
“We can see elections are pointless, like showbusiness. We will support Putin fully in these elections and we hope they will be the last elections we have,” he said, during a roundtable meeting with journalists at his Moscow office in December.