Vladimir Putin has been a Russian powerhouse for more than two decades. His reign has seen accusations of corruption and election fraud, but also been widely accepted among the Russian people. Some polls give him an 80 % approval rating, though there is no reason to take those polls at face value. Most of all, it seems, Putin is a decent enough option, simply because there is fear that what might come after could be even worse. But Putin is also old. At 62, the former KGB agent is pushing the average life expectancy of a Russian man, which is 64 years. Russian politics can’t count on him being around for forever, or even necessarily to win re-election in 2018. So, what can we expect of a possible post-Putin Russia?
Putin’s political career began under former President Boris Yeltsin, in whose administration he quickly moved through the ranks. When Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in 1999, Putin took over as acting President. Despite accusations of election rigging, he won the subsequent 2000 presidential elections, and proceeded to lead Russia for two terms, until 2008. Abiding by the constitution, which limits a person to two terms as President, Putin stepped aside in 2008, and somewhat cynically switched positions with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. At the end of the mandate, however, in 2012, they switched back, and Putin was elected President for a term that runs out in 2018.
Putin’s age is not the only reason he might not stand for re-election in 2018. New York University’s specialist on Russia’s security services, Mark Galeotti, wrote that “Putin is not a man to gamble and take chances. One way or the other, if he stands, he will ensure that he will win.” Despite constant accusations of election fraud, there has also been a genuine support for Putin’s presidency, though probably not as wide as election results would suggest. While it’s hard to tell due to unreliable opinion polls in a country with limited free speech, it would seem that this support is starting to wane.
If the elections were to be held today, Putin would probably be able to bring it home without too much trouble. But in the long term, things might be looking a bit bleaker. An economy in freefall, constantly rising costs of living, and efforts to quelch the opposition have not helped Putin gain any favor with the middle class. Oil and gas prices are falling, as is the ruble. If the situation continues to escalate until 2018, he might be more interested in “staging” the election for a Putin-approved successor: a candidate who will continue the legacy of Putin and his United Russia Party, but without the tear-and-wear of public opinion that the last few years has brought to Putin. This might be the safest way to ensure that a weak opposition does not use the dip in United Russia’s public approval to gain back their footing.
As for potential Putin-approved candidates, a few names are touted more than others. First of all, current Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev is often mentioned, as he is obviously a power player, and leader of the ruling United Russia Party. On the other hand, his one term in the Kremlin was an obvious sham, and he is seen as a “politically weak figure”, due to the clearly disproportionate power relationship between Medvedev and Putin.
A more likely candidate, according to some experts, is Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. He was a Moscow governor before being appointed by Putin in 2012, and before that a widely popular Minister of Emergency. He is a Putin darling, a former United Russia leader (2000-2005), and will most likely follow in Putin’s footsteps, much like he has before. His appointment to Minister of Defense came after the semi-forced resignation of Anatoly Serdyukov, whose relationship with the President was less than harmonic. Another populist option, also a Putin protegée, is Dmitry Rogozin, Deputy Prime Minister since 2011.
What we don’t know is how this is going to play out in the public eye. In a 2013 Levada poll, only 14 % of Russians said that they want Putin’s successor to carry on with his policies, while 41 % would prefer a new leader to offer new solutions. While Shoigu and Rogozin are popular figures, they are clearly tainted by Putin. At the same time, the opposition is weak, with prominent Kremlin-critic Alexei Navalny only recently released from jail after, among other things, “politically motivated” embezzlement charges. Navalny was at one point an option for a Kremlin outsider candidate for the Presidency, but due to his criminal charges he is now unable to run for public office.
As for Putin’s own opinion, we can mostly just guess. In a 2013 Q&A session, he responded to questions about a potential successor with “There’s nothing to talk about”. That’s probably as close to an answer as we’re going to get before 2018 presidential bids are announced.