Staunton, June 30 – Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Center for the Study of Elites at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology and Russia’s most distinguished student of elites and their rotation, says that “Putin’s successor is already in his closest entourage” and that Putin may even decide who it will be.
In an interview taken by Vladimir Rudakov and published today on Profile.ru, the sociologist says that despite Putin’s high ratings, it is far too early to say whether he will run in 2018 or decide to become a Russian version of Deng Xiaoping (profile.ru/rossiya/item/83582-preemnik-putina-uzhe-nakhoditsya-v-ego-blizhajshem-okruzhenii).
Indeed, she suggests, the Ukrainian crisis, depending on how it plays out, may determine whether the Kremlin leader remains in power or chooses to go. While those closest to Putin are putting on a brave face, they are unhappy about restrictions on their travel to the West, their access to property there, and the ability of their children to study there.
A slightly broader part of the elite is suffering a bit from the sanctions, she continues, but “if the West will be able to convince its own business and a serious outflow of capital from Russia begins, the borders are closed, and credit card arrangements are disrupted ... this will affect not only the elites but also the middle class.”
So far, the sociologist says, ordinary people are backing Putin because of patriotism and because sanctions don’t affect them. In most cases, she continues, the population “can hardly calculate” how sanctions are already affecting the country and are pleased to float along with “a romantic wave of patriotism.”
But if first those closest to Putin and then broader groups start to hurt, Kryshtanovskaya says, opposition to the Kremlin leader could increase because “no one wants to reduce his standard of living, even for the high goals of patriotism.” Such a situation would be very dangerous, and parts of the elite could begin making their own calculations about the future.
She points out that “if the events in Ukraine had taken place somewhat earlier, in 2011-2012, they might have divided the political class instead of uniting much of it as now. At that time, Kryshtanovskaya says, “there were signs of the fragmentation of the elite,” between Putin’s “conservative majority” and Dmitry Medvedev’s “small group of liberals.”
Putin was able to “consolidate the political class and neutralize the opposition,” and those around him who might have become his opponents were overwhelmed by the patriotic “wave” that has swept the country since the annexation of Crimea and sent Putin’s ratings through the roof.
Of course, she continues, “there is a danger that [today’s] euphoria will be replaced by depression. And this will happen if nothing is done. Fine,” people will say, “you took Crimea. Hurrah! But what next? Enormous costs? A decline in the standard of living? If so, then depression will come.”
Putin and his entourage certainly understand this. He and his people “understand it and are thinking how not to allow it to happen. Initially, they will continue to point to what could happen to Russia and its stability if it were to follow the Ukrainian path. No one wants that, Kryshtanovskaya says.
“Ukraine has given Russia a lesson about what not to do. To lose stability and push one’s country into chaos.” That is easy to do, she continues, but escaping from chaos is “difficult.” Putin has made his career by presenting himself as the guarantor of stability, and how he has added to that someone who has given Russians a reason for pride.
“People want to be proud of their country!” But attitudes can change and the 2018 presidential elections are a long way off. At present, all polls show that “the population does not see an alternative to Putin.” And neither does the elite. But this means less than some may think because “in all authoritarian regimes, it is that way: there is no alternative to the leader.”
Were things to continue exactly as they are, Putin could win without any difficulty. But they are unlikely to. And that in turn raises the question: “Does Putin himself want to serve another term as president? Or will he prefer to play the role of a kind of Deng Xiaoping,” an eler statesman who doesn’t have to deal with day to day problems.
Putin is “intelligent and is [undoubtedly] considering various possibilities,” Kryshtanovskaya says. “It is possible that he will consider that for the preservation of the stability of the system, it will be better to go into the shadows, to find ‘successor No. 2,’ and to help him win his own authority in the elections.”
The sociologist does not say this, but such a strategy not only represents a recapitulation of the way in which Putin himself came to power but could allow him to have a far longer influence over the future of the country than might be the case if he has to face the inevitable problems that any Kremlin leader would.
“If that scenario is realistic,” she says, “then such a successor is already in the immediate entourage of the president.” And it may be, Kryshtanovskaya concludes, because “Putin has more than once demonstrated that he is capable of the most unexpected and out of the ordinary steps.”
And that in term means, the elite specialist concludes, that “intrigue about his true plans will be preserved until the very end.”