10 February 2016

Life after Putin


President Putin, for better or worse, has put the Russia back on the political map. In 1991, a collapsing USSR meekly consented to the Gulf War, its opinions disregarded, and after its collapse into the new Russian Federation, it was defeated in what should have been a simple domestic security operation in the First Chechen War, suffering heavy causalities.

Fast forward to 2016, and deft Russian blocking diplomacy has avoided American intervention into Syria, and it has successfully frustrated western influence in the former Soviet republics, again, with a very heavy toll in life.

Now this paints a rather rosy picture of Russian power. The Russian economy remains, instead of Gorbachev’s dream of a new technical economy underpinned by perestroika, an energy autocracy. With oil dropping 60 per cent in value from June 2014, the drawbacks of this approach have been laid bare, with the rouble sliding further against the dollar, further draining Russia’s foreign reserves.

Putin’s aggressive foreign policy has ensured that Russia has held on to its seat at the international table. But he cannot last for ever. Be it retirement, an easing out by other political elites, or even a heart attack, Putin will have to cease to be the central point of Russian politics.

So the question remains, what happens to Russia when Putin leaves it behind?

A sudden departure of a figure so entrenched within the Russian political system would cause a political crisis within government. As one Russian journalist I met in Moscow, put it:

“I imagine that when Putin, and his way of controlling things from the top, ends, there will be a crisis, similar to 1991.

Putin has eliminated any sense, as with a normal democracy, that people are responsible for what is happening within society.

There is a huge political vacuum and he is the only thing that is here now to fill it.”

This vacuum has been developed with the help of Vladislav Surkov, a man of many jobs within the Russian government, but effectively Putin’s go to PR man. He has helped to construct the postmodern myth of Putin’s invincibility, through careful manipulation of the Russian mass media.

Thus, Putin is domestically perceived as being the only constant within a political world that is strange and otherworldly, and that moves and shifts with any attempt to pin it down. In such a system, the public has largely lost a sense of connection to politics, and the opposition has been rendered a political irrelevance.

This all works well until that central figure disappears.

Sir Roderic Lyne, British Ambassador to Russia from 2000 to 2004, explained his predictions as to what would happen should Putin fall under a bus:

“As we used to say about Margaret Thatcher, there is a sense in which people think no bus would ever dare run him over!”

He described how, if Putin were to die suddenly, the fate of Russia would fall to the 200 or so people who he has placed in positions of economic and political power.

“These people are strongly entrenched, and would be determined to stay in power, and hold on to their assets.”

However, there is no mechanism accepted by those in power and authority by which the man at the top table is replaced.

In the Soviet era, when one General Secretary, such as Andropov and Chernenko, keeled over on short notice, another could be quickly elected from the politburo, so long as that figure held the body’s respect.

There is no such system in today’s Russia. United Russia, Putin’s political party, is nowhere near enough of a meaningful political entity for it to caucus for a new leader. And while constitutionally, it would be the Prime Minister who took over from a dead president, Dimitri Medvedev was perceived as a weak leader even when titular president. Without Putin’s backing, he would be an unlikely candidate.

Despite this, Sir Roderic noted a few possible options. One of these was Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu.

“He is relatively independently minded, as has been received well by the public as a firefighter, getting hands on and dealing with crises. He is also perceived as a tough, hawkish figure who has the added benefit of being from neither the Moscow or St Petersburg factions, instead being from the far east.”

While liberal, reformist minded elements of the government would also likely attempt to put forward a candidate, there is no obvious figure who could command the respect to do so. One touted figure, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, while highly economically literate is more of a technocrat than a president.

“This is an exercise where you could create a shortlist of 20 potential presidents, and still get it wrong,” Sir Roderic said.

Even after successfully coming to power, a new Russian president, would face keeping a dozen bean bags in the air. They would face having to take on several mismanagement issues from Putin’s time in office; economic stagnation, massive inequality, corruption, fractious regional governments, and Chinese encroachment into Central Asia, among others. And they would have to do all this, without the massive public support that Putin enjoys. It seems clear that political instability would be the watchword. One political crisis, for example, the fall of ageing autocrat Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, for example, could be the end of the new administration.

While a healthy leader dying in their early 60’s is unlikely, Russia will face some of these issues however Putin leaves office.

If Putin leaves power, he will want to retain his assets and will thus need to find a successor who has both the strength to run the country, as well as being “his man”. In the Russian context, this means Putin would want to have something on him, a skeleton in the closet that Putin can rely upon to keep him loyal.

Putin will also be at risk as a result of how he dealt with Yeltisn’s allies upon taking power in 2000. He squeezed them when he took power, confiscating their assets, imprisoning some and exiling others. This is something that Russia’s political elite are unlikely to forget when Putin leaves power himself, and may use his departure as a time to settle old scores.

Either way, Putin faces the risk of having to remain the real power behind the throne to remain relevant, or even alive, which is unlikely to tend to stability.

It seems unlikely that Russia would simply collapse with the departure of Putin, as the USSR did in 1991. Too many people have too much to lose, and enough Russian technocrats now know how to operate a state within the capitalist paradigm to stave off catastrophe.  However, Russia will face significant costs, both economically and to its international prestige, in transition. It will be a challenge for Russia to remain internally stable, while exerting the sorts of power abroad that it does today, after Putin.

George Greenwood is a freelance political journalist, published in the New Statesman, The Independent and The International Business Times.