In a little more than two weeks, Vladimir Putin will, again, be elected president of Russia. From his own point of view, Putin has succeeded in achieving the most important objective of his third term: making the prospect of a sudden, radical political change in Russia unlikelier. In his fourth term, Putin will face a very different task: demonstrating to his other electorate, the Russian political elite that he is still in charge. This very likely means more political theatre instead of actual governance. With the same people at the top.
For Vladimir Putin, the most important, if not the only question regarding his third term is whether Russia is closer to a dreaded colour revolution than six years ago or farther from it. This is a question of psychological, not only political, importance. If there was one period in the past two decades when Putin probably genuinely considered retiring from active politics, it was Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. And then came 2011 with its flurry of events that traumatised Putin: Medvedev’s allowing the NATO to act in Libya and the subsequent killing of Gaddafi; Vladislav Surkov’s adventurous project of creating a liberal party to support Medvedev’s reforms in the Duma going off the rails; the backlash of the siloviki against the government’s privatisation scheme. The prospect of an open conflict between an incompetent government and his own conservative allies, the prospect of Medvedev becoming the face of a liberal uprising traumatised Putin and led to his decision of retaking the rains in 2011.
And as a result, Russia is indeed farther away from a “colour revolution” than in 2012. It surely needed the carefully engineered nation-wide euphoria of Crimea’s annexation. This was essential for Putin to survive the end of the oil glut. But this is not what is holding him up in 2018. Rather, it is that the variables of the equation have changed. Active opposition has become somewhat more expensive, and possible payouts have become significantly smaller. As Oleg Kashin noted on Republic, his era entered a phase, in which even political repression has become boring, but which everyone expects to be over soon.
There is one catch: a colour revolution might seem like a distant possibility today, but this came with the price of edging closer to a palace coup. As I wrote last month, there is not a lot of difference between what Stalin’s corpse represented to Beriya, Khrushchev and Malenkov and what Putin’s political authority – also often referred to as “the body” – represents to members of the Russian political elite today, once it is universally understood that these are the last years of the Putin era. Many are digging their trenches already. Therefore, while Putin’s third term was about minimising the chances of sudden grassroots changes, his fourth term will be about showing that up until the point chosen by himself to appoint his successor, he and only he has the authority to hold the system together.
As Tatiana Stanovaya pointed out recently in an article about Putin’s ‘adhocracy’ – a system in which anyone can become the ‘curator’ of any specific policy field regardless of their official position or the lack thereof – while such a way of governance reduces public oversight and therefore, makes it more difficult to hold anyone to account, it also sometimes makes leaders forget that regular institutions are still there and count. Keeping this in mind will be vitally important for Putin in the following years.
Putin was prime minister before he ascended to the presidency, both times. In 2007-08, his successor – who later turned out to be a placeholder – Dmitry Medvedev was first deputy prime minister and fought it out with the other deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov. This does not mean that when the moment comes, Putin will pick his successor from the government – he certainly likes to surprise his circle – but it does mean that those in the higher echelons of the government will be regarded as possible successors. Only, those occupying these positions today – Dmitry Medvedev and Igor Shuvalov – are clearly not considered independent and influential players. And it is in Putin’s best interest that this remain so for as long as possible.
Only a couple of years ago, Medvedev looked as if he could be the face of a reformed Russia. He was actively seeking that role. According to Mikhail Zygar, he was trying to turn himself into a Russian Barack Obama. In 2011, following the rigged Duma election, Medvedev even showed sympathy with protesters in Moscow. A little more than six years later, Medvedev is a political corpse. His allies have been systematically forced out of power structures or prosecuted – the latest in this series being Nikita Belykh whose appointment as governor of the Kirov region by Medvedev in 2008 was an experiment in liberal politics – the flagship projects of his presidency downscaled or shut down. Alexei Navalny’s revelations of massive corruption linked to Medvedev in 2017 made the prime minister more of a symbol of corruption under Putin than the president himself. But this was nothing more than a coup de grace: by this time, Medvedev had lost most of his popularity. Who still remembers the time when his approval figures moved together with Putin’s?
This makes Medvedev the perfect candidate for prime minister following Putin’s re-election: why would the president entrust anyone who might be regarded as his successor to head the government if it is clear to everyone that the incumbent is not in charge of decision making?
There is another reading to what happened six years ago, which has less to do with colour revolutions than it does with loyalty and competence in general. By 2011, the presidential administration was trying its limits. In 2010 Anatoly Serdyukov, then defence minister went behind Putin’s back to request more money for his ministry from the state budget than previously agreed. In 2011, Putin and Medvedev had a public spat on the issue of Libya, and to many, Putin was very quickly proven right. These were only the two most visible of several instances of impertinence and mismanagement from Putin’s point of view.
Putin has signaled his irritation with bad management several times since. Andrey Belyaninov, the former head of Russia’s Customs Service and Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of Russian Railways were both fired for mismanaging the organisations that they were entrusted with. Putin also showed his irritation with Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft, on several occasions. Under Sechin’s leadership, Rosneft started an aggressive expansion in the domestic market with questionable means, while making Rosneft highly indebted. However, not only are Rosneft’s problems in part a consequence of Putin’s foreign policy, which limited the company’s access to Western credit and technology, so far Sechin has not tried to question the president’s authority. Even if the trial of Alexei Ulyukayev was an unwanted spectacle for Putin, Sechin probably knew that Ulyukayev cannot be convicted before the procedure receives a final nod from the president – which it did, during Putin’s press conference in December.
The institution whose influence has grown the most in Putin’s third term is the military. Following the annexation of Crimea, defence minister Sergey Shoigu has established himself as a strong member of the president’s inner circle, often at the expense of Putin’s other allies. Shoigu has so far avoided major blunders – the case of the mercenaries of the so-called Wagner Group is more tightly linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin than to him – and during his short tenure as the governor of the Moscow Region he proved that he is patient enough not to rebel against unpleasant presidential orders. Shoigu is probably aware that as a member of an ethnic minority, his chances of succeeding Putin are rather slim. However, he has built a relatively strong network of allied regional governors and as long as Putin’s foreign policy adventures remain key to preserving his domestic voter base, the military will remain a powerful platform.
This does not mean that, heading into Putin’s fourth presidential term, Russian politics will be still water. There are ample opportunities to fight the battles that cannot be waged in Moscow somewhere else. For instance, a renewed focus on Russia’s regions due to the chronic problems created by the centralisation of revenues, decentralisation of expenses, indebtment, protests, emerging cultural wars and a thorough renewal of the gubernatorial corps in the past years will offer plenty of space for political engineering. This is already happening: Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov, Shoigu and Putin personally have all strengthened their positions in the regions through recent appointments. Besides the appointment of governors linked to Putin’s security detail in 2016, the emergence of the “young technocrats” in 2017, many of whom have ties to Chemezov, and the “language wars” between Moscow and regions such as Tatarstan and the Komi Republic, the fourth major development has been an increasing crackdown, led by the Federal Security Service (FSB) on governors accused of corruption.
In past years, several high-ranking politicians have raised the possibility of a revamp of Russia’s 83 (+2) regions. It is true that Russia’s present administrative division is an incoherent patchwork. In the early 1990s several regions managed to negotiate privileges with a suddenly weakened central government creating, among others, the so-called matryoshki – regions that enjoy rights similar to other regions, while officially being parts of other regions, a situation that called into mind Russian nesting dolls. Tatarstan, a republic sporting both a strong national identity and a considerable stack of natural resources, negotiated an agreement, in 1994, with Moscow that gave it a unique degree of autonomy over its domestic matters. Chechnya, the other region that seriously threatened Russia with declaring independence from it, was handled, well, in a differrent way, but to this day it maintains a unique degree of self-rule and its president, Ramzan Kadyrov, a unique degree of impunity. Vladimir Putin who in 1998, as the deputy head of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential administration had to deal with regions which, in the wake of Russia’s financial meltdown, threatened to oppose Moscow in order to prevent uprisings in their own territory, radically curbed the political autonomy of regions. Last year, even Tatarstan lost its special status.
Tinkering with the borders of regions may be one possible step further. Many argue that by creating multi-ethnic republics out of several autonomous republics with their own ethnic character, Moscow can prevent the debate on the use of minority languages from escalating (the idea of merging Chuvashia, Mordovia and Mari El in a “Volga Republic” has been on the table for a while). Others suggest merging economically depressed regions with prosperous ones – i.e. Volgograd with Saratov and/or Astrakhan – to ensure a smoother transfer of funds to where they are needed. And then there is the need to placate the disgruntled political elite of certain regions – i.e. Tatarstan – possibly by adding new territories to the republic.
Arguably, few of these mergers would make any sense economically. Many regions suffer from depending too strongly on the federal budget and it seems unlikely that Putin would be willing to give them more autonomy over their funds. Furthermore, mergers will undoubtedly create tensions between the local political and business elites who will suddenly face competition for positions and assets that they have previously held.
Seemingly, there is no coherent strategy for reforming Russia’s administrative structure. Every time an idea appears, it seems to concern specific regions and be driven by a whim – calling into mind the legend about Lithuania’s “Dieveniskes appendix”, which, some say, was created when terrified cartographers dared not move Stalin’s pipe placed on a map, choosing to redraw the border between Lithuania and Belarus instead. But it does not mean that the reform will not happen. While it is understandable that the president would rather not revamp whole regions before a parliamentary and then a presidential election, not using this opportunity to keep power groups in Moscow occupied while throwing a bone to favoured regional elites would be very unlike Putin.
Unless someone offers a better deal.