Monday, January 29, 2018

Putin’s Long-Term Options Ahead More Limited than Many Think, Shaburov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – Because there is no doubt about the outcome of the March 18 elections, Yekaterinburg political commentator Aleksey Shaburov says, Russians are already focusing on what Vladimir Putin will do in the course of the next six years and what will happen to Russia after 2024.

            If one considers these questions carefully, Shaburov says, one can see that Putin who will play a key role in making decisions about both things does not have as many possibilities for action as some think. In fact, he continues, there are only four basic scenarios for Putin’s fourth term (

            The first scenario, Shaburov says, is that Putin will follow the rules as laid out by the Russian Constitution. Those require him to leave office and thus power in 2024 but possibly allowing him to name a successor who would “guarantee Putin security and inviolability after his departure from office.”

            This would be “the most civilized and democratic scenario,” Shaburov says; “but there are great doubts that it will be realized.” Putin has clearly indicated that he doesn’t plan to leave power ever, he couldn’t be sure of any guarantees given him by a successor after he left office, and putting forward a successor would leave him in the position of “a lame duck.”

            The second scenario would involve Putin leaving the presidency in 2024 but arranging things so that he retains real power in his own hands.  “In essence, this scenario would repeat” what happened in 2008 when Dmitry Medvedev became president but Putin kept real power as prime minister.

            But “there is a significant difference between 2008 and 2024,” Shaburov continues.  “In 2008, it was commonly understood that after four years nothing would keep Putin from returning to the Kremlin.” However, in 2024, that possibility would be less certain. “In 2030 Putin would be 78,” and thus it is unlikely he would ever come back to the same office.

            “Consequently,” Shaburov says, “Putin’s power away from the presidential post would not be as firm as it was in 2008-2012.” Instead, he would face “new risks,” the greatest being that the successor would seek to mobilize support among the elite and the elite would turn on Putin.

            If he adopts this scenario, the Yekaterinburg analyst says, Putin will be compelled to intensify his personal cult of personality and to convince Russians that his power derives from himself rather than them or the constitution.  He has moved in this way already, but he would have to do even more in this regard in the next six years. 

            The third scenario, Shubarov says, unlike the first two, “presupposed the change of the Constitution,” and for this one, only the dropping of the limitation on the number of presidential terms.  Many authoritarian rulers have done that, including some in the post-Soviet space like Nursultan Nazarbayev and Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

            Technically, it wouldn’t be hard for Putin to do this.  But it would require significant “propaganda preparation,” including a clear explanation as to why Putin must remain in power even after 2024.  He would likely point to Russia being surrounded by enemies and threats to its territorial integrity, messages that would likely have to be backed by more aggression. 

            Moreover, such a move, Shaburov suggests, would almost certainly spark protests within Russia. How massive they might be is unclear, but they could be kept to a minimum only by force “which would mean making the existing political regime ever more harsh.”

            Finally, there is a fourth scenario, the analyst suggests. This would require fundamental changes in the constitution leading to “the establishment of a new system of power in which Putin as before would control the situation in the country but would not be subject to current limitations.”
There are several possible variants for this. He could create a new organ of executive power headed by Putin or “transfer a significant part of the powers to the prime minister.” This path is also “no rarity for rulers attempting by every possible means to remain in power.” Armenia is going in this direction and Turkey already has.
Such a move could be accompanied by other “reforms” and could even be presented as part and parcel of them.  But “such serious changes in the structures of the organs of power could lead to the destabilization of the political system and to administrative chaos.”  Whether Putin would get the support he’d need from the current elite is “an open question.”
None of these four scenarios is ideal for Putin, Shaburov says.  Putin may already know which one he will adopt, but his career suggests that he will keep it a secret as long as possible, “especially if he will have chosen one of the first two scenarios.”  Indeed, if he needs a weak “successor-placeholder,” we will learn his name “only at the last minute,” the analyst says.
If Putin chooses the third or fourth scenario, however, he will need time to carry it out, Shaburov continues; and that means he will need to announce his intentions sooner rather than later in order to do so.  Consequently, what Putin does in the next year or so will send a clear signal about what he intends to do after 2024.

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