MOSCOW: Soon after Vladimir Putin is re-elected on Sunday, his thoughts will turn to the question that is likely to dominate his next term as Russia’s president: what will he do when it ends?
Putin’s victory in the presidential election is not in doubt as his ratings are high and he has the state machinery behind him, but how long the man who has dominated Russia for nearly 18 years wants to stay in power is uncertain.
The constitution limits the president to two successive terms, obliging him to step down at the end of his mandate — as he did in 2008 after serving two four-year terms.
His mandate will not expire until 2024 but the problem needs immediate attention because the uncertainty about his long-term future is a source of instability in a fractious ruling elite that only he can keep in check.
“The Russian political scene is entering a new phase,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who is now critical of the country’s leadership. “Most discussion within the ruling elite focuses not on the next stage of the Putin era but on what will constitute the post-Putin era.”
Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union’s ambassador to Russia until last October, says the stakes are high.
“This is a risky moment for the system,” said Usackas, who is now director of the Institute of Europe at Lithuania’s Kaunas University of Technology.
Putin has at least three main options. He could take a leaf out of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book and seek an end to term limits, hand over to a place-holder for a term and then return, or anoint a successor and bow out of public life.
Each choice carries risks and Putin may have other options up his sleeve. A former spy, he is secretive and likes to pull surprises. But the uncertainty about his plans is potentially more destabilising than anything for the ruling elite, the political, security and business leaders around Putin.
Two sources close to the Kremlin said there was, as yet, no plan for when Putin’s terms ends. The matter is so sensitive that they agreed to talk only on condition of anonymity.
Russia’s ruling system, while projecting an image of unity, is divided along many lines — between security hawks and economic liberals, between people with personal vendettas, and between competing business interests.
Putin holds the disparate interests together, so any hint of a vacuum at the centre of the system is risky.
Putin is so entrenched within Russia’s ruling system that many of its members can imagine no other leader. Many in state companies and major banks say they anticipate no real change at the top when Putin’s next term ends.
“There are no discussions in the corridors about the succession. It’s as if people know that he (Putin) will be around forever,” said a source in a government ministry.
If Putin wants the constitution changed to allow a third successive term, he will need two-thirds support in the lower house of parliament, three-quarters in the upper chamber and approval in two-thirds of regional legislatures.
All are institutions where Kremlin allies are the overwhelming majority but Putin has said he will not change the constitution to stay in power.
If he did so, he would risk a backlash from voters who might see it as Russia turning its back on democracy. He also avoided the temptation to tinker with the constitution to extend his rule in 2008, when he last faced term limits.
Instead, he stepped aside and let a loyal lieutenant, Dmitry Medvedev, run for president, certain he would win with the Kremlin’s backing. Putin, who became prime minister for four years, secured re-election when Medvedev’s term ended in 2012, and Medvedev has been prime minister since then.
Putin controlled the country from the wings between 2008 and 2012, and might see a similar move as an option now. Medvedev’s ratings are much lower than Putin’s but the ruling elite could accept him as a tried-and-tested proxy for Putin.
“Only Medvedev,” a source in government circles told Reuters when asked who could be president after Putin. “Everyone is afraid of change.”