- - Wednesday, April 17, 2019

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin has five years left to run of what should be his final presidential term, but speculation within Russian political circles over a likely move by the former KGB officer to maintain his long grip on power is already reaching a fever pitch.

“It’s best to prepare for such things in advance,” Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant, said in an interview.

“Everyone understands that this event will be an upheaval for Russian politics,” he said. “In one form or another, there will be a complete overhaul of the foundations and rules of the [political] playbook. Any decision Putin takes will have this effect.”

Mr. Putin, 66, who came to power in 2000, has a track record of employing political sleight of hand to extend his rule. In 2008, at the end of his second presidential term, he sidestepped constitutional term limits by swapping jobs with Dmitry Medvedev, his prime minister and political ally. Mr. Medvedev served as Russia’s president for a single term until 2012, when Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin.

Few analysts believe Russia’s longtime leader will simply retire from political life in 2024, when his current presidential term expires. In part, that’s because of fears over his personal safety. Political transitions in post-Soviet states are often murky, and criminal charges against former leaders are common enough to cause Mr. Putin concerns over his immunity from retribution when he relinquishes power.

Out-of-the-box thinking

The prospect, or the peril, of a post-Putin Russia has already inspired some out-of-the-box thinking over what and who comes next.

One scenario being discussed is that Russia and neighboring Belarus could effectively merge, allowing Mr. Putin to become the leader of a Russian-Belarusian state. Under a 1999 treaty, the two former parts of the Soviet Union are supposed to operate as a unified state, overseen by a Supreme Council, with a single currency, judiciary and even flag. Yet this deep level of integration is so far purely theoretical and its only tangible result has been a common labor market. Implementing the terms of the treaty, some analysts say, would allow Mr. Putin to step down as president and take up the powerful role as head of a newly strengthened Supreme Council. In theory, it’s the perfect solution for Mr. Putin.

The hitch? Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ authoritarian president since 1994, is unwilling to step aside or cede his smaller country’s sovereignty. Mr. Lukashenko, who has held numerous talks with Mr. Putin since last year, has said Russia’s recent decision to hike the price of oil it sells to Belarus is part of a pressure campaign to force Minsk to surrender its independence.

“I can read between the lines, and I understand the hints,” he told Russian journalists recently. “You should just say it out loud: ‘Destroy the country and become part of Russia.’”

The Kremlin appeared to turn up the pressure last week when it barred some Belarus fruit imports. In response, Mr. Lukashenko ordered the closure of a Russian oil export pipeline for indefinite repairs.

Another model for Mr. Putin to avoid losing power just played out in another outpost of the old Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan, longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only leader the country has known since the collapse of the Soviet Union, unexpectedly stepped down in March after three decades at the helm of the oil-rich Central Asian state. Although Mr. Nazarbayev resigned as president, he retains the official title of “Elbasy,” or “leader of the nation.”

While technically out of office, Mr. Nazarbayev has a lifetime role that gives him the right to veto government policy. He also remains head of the country’s powerful Security Council and the leader of the ruling Nur Otan party.

“The Kremlin will, of course, watch the Kazakh experiment with keen interest,” wrote Tatyana Stanovaya, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “[But] Kazakhstan … has different political traditions, an elite society with a different structure and fundamentally different geopolitical conditions.”

Instead of using Mr. Nazarbayev’s blueprint, Ms. Stanovaya said, Mr. Putin likely will focus on engineering the transition process to guarantee a friendly successor.

“Whether that person will be a placeholder acting under the watchful eye of Putin or a full-fledged ruler is a separate issue, but the president is known for generally acting with caution,” she wrote.

Elite tensions

Uncertainty over Mr. Putin’s future has stirred tensions among the Russian political elite. Maxim Oreshkin, the 36-year-old minister for economic development, caused a near uproar last month when he said he would like to become Russia’s president at some point. It was the first time a serving minister or other leading official had spoken out loud about their presidential ambitions during Mr. Putin’s rule.

Two days later, Vyacheslav Volodin, the parliamentary speaker, rebuked Mr. Oreshkin in unusually stark terms as he delivered a speech in parliament accusing him of being unprepared and short on specifics, a rare sign of open discord among Russia’s political elite. RBK, a Russian media outlet, cited two government sources as saying the public dressing-down was punishment for Mr. Oreshkin’s statement.

Mr. Volodin, a former key Kremlin aide who once said that “if there is no Putin, there is no Russia,” has been mentioned as a possible successor to Mr. Putin, but he has not spoken publicly about the issue. Mr. Putin did not comment on Mr. Oreshkin’s apparent breach of Russian political etiquette.

The political taboo on speculating on life after Mr. Putin, whenever or however he steps down from the presidency, means that the field of possible successors is limited. One oft-mentioned name, however, is Alexei Dyumin, who was on Mr. Putin’s security detail for 17 years and is reported to have taken part in Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Mr. Dyumin, 46, is currently the governor of the Tula region in western Russia. He played goalie against Mr. Putin’s team in a nighttime hockey match on Red Square in December, dutifully failing to stop the president’s shots. “He is ready to carry out any task,” was how Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, once described him.

Some believe, however, that Mr. Putin may simply resort to what worked in 2008: “stepping aside” for Mr. Medvedev in 2024 while holding on to the levers of power and preparing to return when he wants. A somewhat counterintuitive theory is that the recent arrests of figures close to Mr. Medvedev are evidence that he is set for a second stint in the Kremlin.

Alexey Ulyukaev, a former economy minister in Mr. Medvedev’s government, was sentenced to eight years in prison on hotly disputed corruption charges in 2016. Mikhail Abyzov, who was tasked by Mr. Medvedev with making the Russian government more transparent, was arrested last month on multimillion-dollar fraud charges.

“Medvedev now has no genuinely powerful aides left on his side,” said Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician. “And so he becomes the ideal successor once more. Loyal? Absolutely. He has no one he can rely on, and he can’t make his own play [for power] even if he wanted to. And he is well-trained.”

Yet whatever decision Mr. Putin makes over his political future, his legacy is assured for decades to come, Vladislav Surkov, a key Kremlin ideologue, wrote in a recent essay.

“Many years from now,” he said, “Russia will still be the state of Putin.”

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