Putin’s eternal world

Even with a new president, Russia’s current system would be nearly impossible to dismantle.

Putin in 1994 (change)
Vladimir Putin in 1994, during his tenure as deputy chairman of St. Petersburg. Many of the president’s closest associates have been by his side for decades. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • President Putin is surrounded by powerful actors with a similar worldview
  • A new leader from this clique would be equally undemocratic
  • At the moment, there is no opposition figure that could overturn this system

A glance at the front page of The Economist on October 28, 2017, is enough to sum up Western perceptions of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a few words. “A Tsar Is Born” reads the title above Mr. Putin’s head, photoshopped onto a highly decorated uniform. The Russian opposition uses the same cliche. In 2018, supporters of Alexei Navalny chanted “He’s not a tsar to us” during nationwide protests. But the idea that Vladimir Putin is above everyone else is wrong. While the constitution gives him extraordinary powers, his personal authority rests on a complex system of actors. 

During his first term as president (2000-2004), Mr. Putin sought to break away from his original patrons around Boris Yeltsin and recruited the backbone of his following from three sources:

  • The so-called siloviki, members of the KGB and successor intelligence agencies (derived from the Russian word for strength or power, sila.) Vladimir Putin himself was the director of the FSB domestic intelligence agency from 1998 to 1999.
  • The technocrats, composed of lawyers, economists, and financial experts from Mr. Putin’s time in the St. Petersburg city government (from 1991-1994, he was chairman of the Municipal Committee for Foreign Relations; from 1994-1996, he was First Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg). This clique includes Dmitry Medvedev (Russia’s president from 2008-2012).
  • His personal circle of friends from his time in Petersburg, which partly overlaps with the siloviki camp.

Professionalism and expertise were always secondary recruiting criteria. Loyalty and trust were the primary factors.

Putin’s court

During his first two terms in office, President Putin managed to maintain a careful balance between the three circles of actors. However, with the violent protests against his candidacy for a third term in 2011 and 2012, power began to shift away from the liberal technocrats, favoring the siloviki. The importance of the secret services, the military, the Interior Ministry and the National Guard grew in relation to the population’s protest potential. In parallel, the 2014 Ukraine crisis damaged the reputation of the liberal-technocratic camp, as rapprochement with the West became less likely amid heavy sanctions.

There will likely be more repression as President Putin gradually loses his legitimacy.

All of this does not bode well for Russia’s democratic development. Unlike the liberal technocrats, who measure power and legitimacy primarily in terms of economic and social success, the security structures define the system’s hold on power primarily in terms of control and repression. The growing authoritarian monitoring of social movements is part of their work, including a considerable tightening of the law on demonstrations and defamation. Since December 2020, even the last remaining legal form of spontaneous protest in Russia, the individual vigil, has been considered an unauthorized rally.

For Mr. Putin, it is clear that his hold on power is based primarily on his continuing popularity. Only as long as he enjoys this support can he maintain his authority over the various Kremlin factions. But if his approval crumbles, so does his power base.

It is striking that the composition of the innermost circle of “Putin’s court” has not changed radically over the past 20 years. In particular, those siloviki who are also personal friends of Mr. Putin have consistently played a key role in the Russian government since 2011. These include both Sergei Ivanov, Mr. Putin’s former KGB colleague and head of his presidential administration from 2011 to 2016, and Nikolai Patrushev, a former FSB director and secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council since 2008. Mr. Patrushev’s foster child, Alexander Bortnikov, succeeded him as FSB director in 2008. Personnel changes do take place in the Putin system – but always within the same circles.

This deeply entrenched elite makes systemic change less likely. In view of the difficult economic situation, reforms that start at the top of the country and lead to a new economic and social contract with Russian society seem unlikely at present – though not impossible. 

There will likely be more repression as Mr. Putin gradually loses his legitimacy. Although approval ratings for the president are still quite high, trust in him has declined significantly over the last two years. The more this trend progresses, the more the president risks having to struggle with rivals among the various actors in power. The system is still showing some resilience, but repression cannot function as a long-term stabilization strategy.

Protester wearing a Navalny shirt leader Russia
In Moscow, a protester wears a shirt with the inscription “Freedom for Navalny.” Despite being perceived as the figurehead of Russian opposition in the West, his approval rating is consistently lower than President Putin’s. © Getty Images

2024 or 2036

President Putin’s 2020 constitutional amendments are a reaction to his dwindling power base. The nullification of his presidential term limits, pushed through in the summer of 2020, can be seen as a clever move by Mr. Putin to prevent the risk of a rivalry struggle at least until 2024. As long as the elites are left in the dark about whether the president will step down or run for reelection at the end of his fourth term, they will not start the struggle for succession. 

Although Mr. Putin’s resignation in 2024 seems unlikely at present, it is not impossible – not least because an amendment to the law seems to offer the president a way out if he chooses. With the December 2020 reform of the immunity legislation, the Russian president will henceforth enjoy civil and criminal immunity not only for actions during, but also before and after his terms in office. In addition, after leaving office, he automatically becomes a member of the Federation Council – and thus enjoys parliamentary immunity for life.

It is as yet unclear who could succeed him. Among potential candidates for the presidency are Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (who, however, is only a few years younger than Putin), popular Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (likely to fail because he is not an ethnic Russian), and Alexei Djumin, the governor of Tula oblast and former deputy head of the GRU military intelligence agency. 

However, there is no obvious “crown prince” like during the president’s second term (2004-2008), when first Dmitry Medvedev and then Sergei Ivanov were appointed as first deputy heads of government. The longer it takes for such a candidate to emerge, the more likely it is that Mr. Putin will run for president again in 2024. But even if he steps down, it will not lead to a sudden shot at redemption for Russia. The president’s closest circle of power will live on as long as its individual actors continue to hold leadership positions.

Russia without Putin 

The opposition gives little reason to hope for a change of direction. Mr. Putin’s most prominent opponent, Alexei Navalny may have become the new face of Russian dissidence in Western perception. But he is no more an Andrei Sakharov or an Alexander Solzhenitsyn than he is a unifying figure for the Russian opposition. 

An able organizer, he has mastered communication via social media and the internet like no one else, but according to data from the Levada Center, Russia’s largest polling institute, his approval ratings have dropped to 14 percent since September 2020. Previously, they were steady at around 20 percent. Meanwhile, disapproval of his activities has risen from 50 to 62 percent.

Even if Mr. Navalny returns to politics after his prison sentence ends in 2032, he will continue to polarize – not only within the Russian population, but also within the opposition. This is partly because, apart from the basic idea of a “Rossiya bez Putina” (Russia without Putin), Mr. Navalny offers no constructive, unifying new direction. 

Alexei Navalny does not think in terms of institutions – which Russia so desperately needs – but primarily in terms of his own ability to transform.

With regard to real wages, pensions and a punitive tax for the beneficiaries of the privatization of the 1990s, he presents himself as a left-wing populist; meanwhile, his views on immigration and a possible visa requirement for Central Asians are closer to the right-wing nationalist end of the spectrum. What exactly Mr. Navalny would do with a Russia without President Putin remains unclear, even some 10 years after he raised his profile as Russia’s main opposition figure.

Mr. Navalny stages his activities as a duel between himself and Vladimir Putin – without being able to show off with any particular credibility in this face-off. Nor does he represent a fundamentally different form of power than Mr. Putin. He does not think in terms of institutions – which Russia so desperately needs – but primarily in terms of his own ability to transform

This way of thinking has burdened Russia since its state independence in 1991. President Boris Yeltsin was already a kind of tribune of the people who thought he had a historical mission to fulfill, in which institutions such as parliaments, courts and parties were less decisive than his own ability to impose his will against any resistance. This is no different with Mr. Putin – and would not change under Mr. Navalny.

At present, it is unlikely that a Russian politician with a less personalized understanding of power will gain prominence. For that, the process of self-reflection that was still characteristic of the human rights movement of the late Soviet period has worn too thin. While it should by no means be underestimated how much an entire generation in Russia’s large cities is slowly distancing itself from the Putin system, to become a political factor, this youthful protest needs a more democratic leader than Alexei Navalny. Until then, however, Mr. Navalny’s attack on the financial interests of the country’s leadership is helpful. A democratic opponent of the Putin system could build on this in the future.

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