Vladimir Putin (foreground) and Dmitry Medvedev. Photo: EPA
Irvin Studin
Irvin Studin

Pulling a Xi Jinping? Vladimir Putin’s power play for modern Russia is not what you think

  • Russia is the world’s largest, most complex state to govern and it seldom acts for one sole purpose
  • Putin or not, the country is still struggling to find its unique path

Back in 2005, a year after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, I asked a taxi driver in the port city of Odessa how things were going in that post-Soviet country. His reply: “We have a saying about our politicians. Some are in jail, others have been to jail, and everyone else is going to jail.”

Ukrainian gallows humour aside, the taxi driver could have been describing the state of affairs in at least 12 of the 15 former Soviet states (the three Baltic states manifestly exempted), and most assuredly the largest and most important of them all – Russia. From Russia to Ukraine (see the fate of Yanukovych), Georgia (see the fate of Saakashvili), Belarus (what comes after Lukashenko?), Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and all the other Central Asian states, the problem of safe and stable presidential succession looms large. Will it be prison? Exile? Death? Or can an algorithm of peaceable transition between heads of states be divined?
President Vladimir Putin’s annual Address to the Federal Assembly last week came against the obvious backdrop of great analytical and high society whispers about what will happen to him and to Russia in 2024, when this presidential term ends and he is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term. (These Addresses to the Federal Assembly are often non-trivial – recall that Putin’s 2005 Address anticipated, very literally, what would be seen in the West as a provocative foreign policy speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference.)
Red Square in Moscow. Russia is the world’s largest country. Photo: AP
Now, in my humble judgment, the Russian Federation is not only the world’s largest country – with some 17 land and maritime borders, 85 constituent units and a very heterogeneous, multi-ethnic population – but also arguably the world’s most complex state in terms of sheer governability. How, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, does a president keep this gigantic Russia from similarly disintegrating? How does he keep Russia safe and stable vis-à-vis its complicated border neighbours, and competitive vis-à-vis strategic rivals like the United States and China? How does he project great power positions in proximate regional theatres like the former Soviet space, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific? And, of course, how can he move the very difficult and stubborn Russian federal and regional bureaucracies to deliver national economic, social, environmental and “spiritual” objectives that will improve the lot of Russia’s 150 million people?

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Contrary to Western instincts, Russia is a very young country – just under three decades old. Surprisingly, it is also a county with little to no developed political ideology. It would be too much to suggest that Russia’s leaders and elites “do not believe in anything”, but they are, perhaps because of the youth of the Russian state, eminently flexible, pragmatic, opportunistic and morally “anomic”. (This ideological flexibility is not to be confused with what has by now evolved into a strong Russian sense of state survival, national interest and calculations in support of such survival and national interest.)

Russia is also a country without a deeply entrenched “system” – almost. Instead, while it is, formally, a federal state, it has very centralised norms and mechanisms of power, appointments and fiscal redistribution, a weak judicial branch and a weak parliament. It has only had two real presidents – Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) and, with a small interregnum, Vladimir Putin since the turn of the century. Each of these presidents has had to wrestle with the daunting task of creating a strong legitimacy (“glue”) for Moscow and himself at the apex of state power. And this legitimacy must always have two interacting faces – internal or domestic, and external or foreign.

President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying commemoration ceremony for the anniversary of the Leningrad siege in World War Two. Photo: AP

So what will happen to Putin and Russia after 2024? That is the question. Indeed, what will happen to Russia in anticipation of 2024? That is perhaps an even more important question – and certainly the key question for anyone seeking to fully understand Moscow’s decision-making, domestically and internationally, over the last several years – if not since the ascent of Putin in the year 2000. In all cases, the warning of the Odessa taxi driver looms large in the psychology of the Russian president and his team.

President Putin’s address offered a first major thesis in answering these questions about succession – a thesis that still awaits a thousand antitheses and a more detailed synthesis. Putin mooted several major constitutional reforms. He argued for the relative empowerment of the State Duma (lower house of parliament) at the expense of future (weakened) presidents in selecting future prime ministers and approving deputy prime ministers and cabinet ministers on the recommendation of the prime minister. He also, notably, proposed to enshrine in the Constitution the “role and status” of the so-called State Council. This Council, formed in 2000 by presidential decree, advises the president on a variety of national issues and is principally comprised of the heads of Russia’s regions.

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Putin’s address also spoke of the major Russian challenge of demography – to wit, how to substantially grow the population of a huge country with a shrinking population, a low birth rate and insufficient net immigration – but the proposed constitutional amendments clearly stole the show. What does the president expect to achieve through these constitutional reforms – reforms on which, following the work of a constitutional commission, there will apparently be a national referendum? The answers are not as obvious or conspiratorial as some might suggest. Like all large states, Russia seldom acts for one sole purpose, and macro-constitutional reforms hint at several parallel objectives. Safe succession certainly figures prominently among these objectives – that is, should Putin not wish to become prime minister again in 2024 (something not impossible, given the proposed increased powers of the post), he may, by some accounts, wish to head the newly constitutionalised and likely significantly empowered State Council. The powers of this new-look State Council are still to be determined, but they well prove formidable and therefore not unattractive to an outgoing president looking for security and continued influence.

China's President Xi Jinping speaks during a meeting with Russia's security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Putin’s speech coincided with the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the entire Russian cabinet. Medvedev, ever-loyal to Putin but otherwise not a super-bureaucrat, now becomes deputy head of the national security council, chaired by Putin himself. Mikhail Mishustin, past director of the Federal Tax Service, becomes the new prime minister.

If the succession reforms hint at possible recentralisation or reconsolidation of Russian power by subterfuge (working, perhaps, from the Nazarbayev post-presidential paradigm in Kazakhstan, rather than the Xi Jinping term-limit removal paradigm in China), then they may also arguably suggest growing Russian appreciation of the need for stronger and more competent regional and local government performance. A more formal State Council could, as Putin suggested, “cardinally increase the role of governors in decision-making at the federal level”. This would address a signal weakness of centralised authoritarian or even “algorithmic” states, including China – namely the dearth of credible feedback mechanisms from the public to the centre, resulting in information problems and frequent errors of policy commission or omission. As the Russians are wont to say, “the truth never reaches the tsar”.

Putin or not, Russia is still struggling to find its unique path. The Kremlin can move fast and at great scale outside its borders – as it has recently in Ukraine and Syria – but it has been far less impressive in nudging the vast, many-headed machinery of government and the population more generally to great domestic results.

At a recent major conference on Russia in the Middle East, hosted by the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel – the country with perhaps the best Russia expertise outside the former Soviet Union – I was asked what would happen in and to Russia over the next decade. I answered that the Russians themselves do not know what will happen even tomorrow. Putin himself does not necessarily know. And 2024 is still far away.

Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Global Brief magazine, and President of the Institute for 21st Century Questions (Toronto). His latest book is ‘Russia – Strategy, Policy and Administration’ (Palgrave MacMillan)