Never before has an upcoming Russian presidential election seemed so routine and insignificant — especially against the backdrop of such a dramatic campaign in the United States. It is expected that Putin will be nominated, competition for him will be provided by a pool of «system» politicians with a combined rating of 30 percent, the people will give their 70 percent, and Putin will again become head of state after the first round of voting. Boring, predictable. All the Kremlin has to do is ensure that everything works smoothly, the voters turn out, and the nonsystem opposition does not play any dirty tricks. But this attitude to the election is mistaken: Everything to do with the campaign will prove momentous for the Putin regime and for the country.
Intriguing Point No. 1. Cost of Victory
Vanquishing the vanquished is not the most interesting task for a political leader who has already gone down in history and far outstripped a political class in which he can see no equals. The task of choosing sparring partners for Putin will be far from the mere formality that it might seem.
The upcoming election at first sight most resembles the election in 2004: At that time the Kremlin also had the task of reelecting Putin in a predictable, moderated, and very comfortable campaign. The parliamentary parties chose not to nominate their leaders against the president, restricting themselves to politicians from the second rank. The CPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation] was represented by Nikolay Kharitonov (who received almost 14 percent), and the LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia] by Oleg Malyshkin (2 percent). Gennadiy Zyuganov’s and Vladimir Zhirinovskiy’s stand-ins had to help Putin maximize his result and at the same time protect their own party leaders against electoral defeat in a plebiscitary campaign. Only Sergey Mironov from the Party of Life ran himself, ending up with 0.75 percent. The only person who contributed any intrigue to the political game was Sergey Glazyev, who in effect foisted himself on the Kremlin as a legitimate candidate, and who even then was actively cultivating contacts with the security agencies (his support group included Sergey Pugachev, the now-persecuted «Orthodox oligarch»). It proved easier and more comfortable for the Kremlin to hang on to Glazyev than to let him «break away.» With his 4 percent, he was of little interest to anyone. Finally, the liberal nominee at that time was Irina Khakamada, who lost the support of the Union of Right-Wing Forces and Yabloko, which were entering an acute political crisis, but on the other hand did receive the support of Yukos and achieved a result of slightly less than 4 percent. In the context of a peak in the antioligarchic trend in Russia, she proved to be the best rival for Putin from the right wing.
Who Putin’s rival will be this time remains a mystery. Should the leaders of the CPRF, LDPR, and Just Russia run, or will they nominate stand-ins? Will there be a right-wing candidate? Will anyone from among the nonsystem liberals be admitted? So far the only person to have declared himself ready to run is Grigoriy Yavlinskiy, whose participation will probably be advantageous to the Kremlin: He will add legitimacy to the campaign and will not take much away. On the other hand, participation by stand-ins from the parliamentary parties seems unlikely. The only reason such a scheme was tried out in 2004 was that it was the first election in a newly established regime and the «national leader» had yet to prove himself, so it was suggested that the «old men» should not interfere. In 2012 there was a different problem — the problem of the legitimacy of Putin’s campaign in the midst of mass protests. The campaign seemed much less of a plebiscite than in 2004, and rejecting the services of stand-ins was essential for the victory to appear legitimate.
In 2018 the participation of Zyuganov and Zhirinovskiy again seems logical, but for different reasons: Replacing them with stand-ins would obviously turn the campaign into a puppet show. After Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, for Putin to compete in an election against stand-ins would seem to be beneath his dignity. Perhaps the coming presidential campaign will be built around the idea of an appeal by Putin to the «Russian nation» for a renewal of his mandate. It would be ideal if there were also participation by «sympathetic» rival candidates who would propose to work toward Putin’s objectives, with adjustments for their own ideological frameworks. In such a way as to ensure that Putin again stood out against the general background as the most sensible and competent candidate.
Intriguing Point No. 2. When
There is a serious debate under way about an early presidential election. There are two hypothetical options: moving the election to March 2017, and creating a single voting day for the regional and presidential elections, next October, for example. An early election is being talked about directly by Aleksey Kudrin, who regards this as an essential condition for a speedy start to structural reforms, the cost of which will be a probable fall in the head of state’s rating. The option of a March vote already seems unlikely for practical reasons — too little time remains. But a vote in the fall of 2017 should not be ruled out: In that case much will depend on how Russia gets through January and February, and whether there are any sudden blows to the economy or unforeseen cataclysms. But even this relatively likely scenario faces three obstacles. The first and most important one is that the regime is currently unprepared for any kind of structural reforms. The experience of the peaks of the crisis in November 2008 and late 2014, when feelings of panic really could be observed among the elite, showed that even a sharp surge in uncertainty and the expectation of probable economic collapse does not prompt Putin to make reforming decisions. Things have to be bad for a really long time before the political will for changes arises. And it is far from certain that these changes will be liberal reforms rather than a further tightening of the screws and strengthening of state regulation. So, if the election is shifted, it will not be for the sake of reforms but in order to guarantee victory in the first round. The reason for a shift, therefore, is less likely to be a crisis than social destabilization or a fall in the regime’s rating, for example.
Another difficult obstacle to shifting the election is the sluggishness of the decisionmaking system. Of course, Putin likes to make use of special operations, and everything could be presented to us at the last minute. But for this, too, things would have to be really «tight.» And that leads on to the third obstacle — Putin’s personal psychological resistance to the scenario of an early election: This option seems legally sly and politically weak. Moreover, for the time being there are no weighty grounds to say there are any real threats to the president’s victory in March 2018.
Nevertheless, the decision on the timing of the election will be a sort of test of the regime’s ability to adapt to a new political phase, the phase of maturity and finiteness. Holding the election at the appointed time will indicate that the regime is in a state of inertia, but bringing it forward would be a sign that the system was being prepared in advance for transformation.
Intriguing Point No. 3. Movement in Unknown Direction
Probably the worst headache for Kremlin functionaries is thinking up Putin’s election platform, formulating his agenda. The history of Putin’s regime teaches that the political leader and his agenda do not proceed together, but one behind the other, and it is Putin who leads the way. The nature of the president’s political leadership rules out any strategy. Strategy for him is what takes shape according to the circumstances (first a plane is shot down, then there is enmity with Turkey). So his agenda has to be devised by thinking up various attractive targets for achieving goals (such as, for example, creating 25 million «highly productive jobs» by 2020). And the target is an end in itself, which entirely deprives the president’s agenda of any conceptual policy content. It is always a collection of slogans that aim to achieve an electoral and sociological result but do not constitute elements of a state policy.
This gives rise to another intriguing aspect of the 2018 election — the desire by various elite groups to take part in formulating the campaign program, with a view to then occupying the posts of those who are going to implement it. The ambition of the elites is, in a political-administrative sense, to tie the election to the country’s future course. This indicates the start of the active phase of the contest for the post of premier. Many people have already prematurely consigned Dmitriy Medvedev to the scrap heap, assuming that the completion of Putin’s third term will mark the end of the government chairman’s career. It is supposed that his successor will be whoever does best in the competition to formulate a presidential campaign program. But there is just one important point here: So far, the leader in this race is none other than Medvedev, who has secured for himself the leadership of the specially created Council for Strategic Development and Priority Projects. This does not guarantee him anything, of course, but the main surprise of the 2018 campaign could be nothing less than Medvedev’s reappointment. This cannot be ruled out, at any rate. The zeal of the reformers may scare Putin more than the feebleness of a predictable premier.
Intriguing Point No. 4. Beginning of the End
Unless the rules of the game are changed, Vladimir Putin’s next presidential term will be his last. He will have a full six years, of course, but these will be six years (all other things being equal) of growing elite fears about post-Putin Russia. Whereas in 2004 the president clearly still had plenty of room for maneuver and a mass of options for retaining power, in 2018 everything looks more complicated. There is the additional factor of the gradual obsolescence of the regime, the finiteness of resources, and — pretty importantly — age. In 2018 Putin will be 66, in 2024 he will be 72. It is not critical. For example, Alain Juppe, the Republican favorite in the French primaries, is 71, he is full of energy and ready to spend five years in the Elysee Palace. But at 72 Putin will have to either change the Constitution and the structure of the regime and stay put, or appoint a successor. Both scenarios upset the established order of things and increase instability and risk, and that is extremely unpleasant for gerontocrats.
It is important to understand that 2014-2017 was a period when Putin’s regime was blossoming and working at full strength. This will be followed by degradation, the speed of which depends on the financial and economic situation, conditions in the world energy market, social factors and moods, the state of the elite, and the depth of a geopolitical crisis that is becoming ever more complex. Putin’s rating may remain high for a long time, but this will be more like the rating of Soviet leaders in the empire’s declining years, and the cost of preserving stability will grow. Uncertainty about the transformation of the regime will be an extremely strong source of pressure on the elites.
Intriguing Point No. 5. Successor and Amendment of Constitution
What makes the situation unique is that Putin will not be able to repeat the 2008 trick. The scenario of a «retractable successor» is totally ruled out. Not for reasons of age: It is possible to imagine that in 2022-2023 Putin takes early retirement, having chosen a «stand-in» who in turn will change the Constitution and enable Putin to return once again in 2028 (for a reduced presidential term of four years). Let us suppose that at 76 the president is full of energy and health. But this scenario is hampered by a totally different problem — the «Medvedev factor.» The 2008-2012 successor almost got knocked out of the game, having constructed an anti-Putin elite coalition and set his sights on a second term. It was an extremely difficult psychological moment when it seemed the country had almost slipped out of control. It will be incredibly hard for Putin to bring himself to repeat that.
So, toward the middle of the fourth term the question of how to transform the system will arise: by changing the Constitution to suit Putin, by choosing a successor, or by creating new institutions that enable the «national leader» to remain at the pinnacle of power, having ceded what is formally the top job to a nominal figure. This source of intrigue lies beyond the horizon of the 2018 election, but historically it is so close that all decisions now being made will be viewed, consciously or unconsciously, through the prism of the «final term.»
The coming presidential election is a prelude to the resolution of the strategic problem whereby the regime does not yet have an institutional foundation for extending its term of office. It is Putin personally who will have to resolve this, and in this context the «resources» of the 2018 campaign will play a significant role: The legitimacy of his victory, the quality of the campaign, the robustness of political leadership (including as displayed in the role of arbiter), managerial competence — Putin’s ability to accumulate capital in these areas will determine whether he succeeds in adjusting the system to suit himself, or whether the system itself dictates Putin’s future.