Russia: Who Will Eventually Succeed Putin?
In two weeks’ time, Vladimir Putin will mark 14 years as Russia’s top political leader, either as prime minister (1999-2000, 2008-2012) or president (2000-2008, 2012- present). He is now post-revolutionary Russia’s third-longest serving leader after Joseph Stalin (1924-1953) and Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). At the age of 60, Putin could theoretically rule for quite some time to come. The key question is whether he will seek another six-year presidential term in 2018, which would take Russia to the year 2024 and Putin to the age of 72.
The protests against Putin’s rule in late 2011 and early 2012 indicated growing dissatisfaction with the president, which, while not regime threatening, could be a harbinger of things to come. Six years is a long time in Russian politics. Hardly anyone would have believed that when Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in March 1985, the USSR would completely fall apart in December 1991. Not that the Russian Federation is likely to collapse, but the country could see major changes.
The Search For A Successor
We do not know if Putin is yet searching for a successor. Putin himself is probably unlikely to speak openly about a succession until closer to the 2018 presidential election. Putin’s dilemma is that if he begins grooming someone now, his own power could begin to fade, potentially paving the way for the heir-apparent to assume the presidency well before 2018. In Russia, strong Number Two figures have tended to turn on their leaders. This was the case with Stalin vis-à-vis Lenin, Brezhnev vis-à-vis Khrushchev, Soviet Vice-President Gennady Yanayev vis-à-vis Gorbachev in the failed coup of 1991, and Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi vis-à-vis Yeltsin in the failed coup of 1993. (Thereafter, Yeltsin abolished the vice-presidency.)
However, if Putin identifies a successor at a late stage, then the heir-apparent may not have enough time to begin preparing for the highest office. This could leave him or her vulnerable to a palace coup, and a disorderly period in politics.
Another dilemma for Putin is whether his heir ought to be a young man (or woman) with a more modernist, reformist vision of Russia, or whether that person ought to be a conservative figure more geared towards preserving the status quo. This will affect a range of issues such as political and economic liberalisation, and foreign policy.
Putin will also need to ensure that his successor provides guarantees that he and his closest associates do not face prosecution for any perceived wrongdoing while in office.
Speculation On Yeltsin’s ‘Successors’ Proved Incorrect
After Russia’s 1996 presidential election, there was intensified speculation about the then-president Boris Yeltsin’s successor. Yeltsin was 65 years old and already in deteriorating health. The most prominent heir-apparent, retired general Alexander Lebed, who played a key role in supporting Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, quickly fell by the wayside, being dismissed for seeking to accumulate too much power. Other potential successors, such as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and reformist deputy prime ministers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, were discredited by Russia’s 1998 financial crisis. Senior Duma figures, such as Ivan Rybkin and Yegor Stroyev, lacked the clout to become president. Meanwhile, regional governors such as Aman Tuleyev and Konstantin Titov lacked a powerbase in Moscow. By mid-1999, before Putin was first appointed prime minister, the most plausible presidential candidates for 2000 appeared to be former prime minister and foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov and then-Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Putin was not mentioned as a possible president. Even after Yeltsin publicly named Putin as his successor, Putin seemed too obscure and uncharismatic to win a popular election. His leadership credentials were largely built when he spearheaded the second Chechen war in the summer of 1999.
A Tale Of Two Sergeis
As of the time of writing, there has been speculation that Putin is grooming either Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (55) or Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (58) as his eventual successor. That is certainly possible, but we caution that it is really too early to say.
Can Russia Move Beyond ‘Strongman’ Rule?
Another question is whether Russia can move beyond ‘strongman’ rule. Most Soviet and post-Soviet leaders have wielded enormous personal power and ruled for life, with the exceptions being Nikita Khrushchev, who was ousted in an internal ‘coup’, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose office was dissolved, and Boris Yeltsin, who reached his constitutional two-term mandate. Putin observed the two consecutive term limit in name in 2008, but not in spirit, for he remained Russia’s de facto leader as prime minister. As things stand, Russia has yet to see an orderly transfer of power from one incumbent leader to an opposition leader.
All of the above speculation is based on the likelihood that Putin’s eventual successor will come from within the Kremlin establishment. However, we cannot preclude that an opposition leader will eventually prevail.