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HomeAuslandZar Putin's heir succession struggle turns on three decisive factors

Zar Putin’s heir succession struggle turns on three decisive factors

Too many uncertainties – Russia warfare against Ukraine, economic issues, internal tensions, and many others- have accumulated in Putin’s empire, making long gerontocratic rule like in late Soviet Union unlikely. Even Putin’s health could deteriorate- although outsiders cannot know this with certainty. Some Russian observers, like Moscow political scientist Waleri Solowej, even proclaim that Putin is already dead. According to Solowej, a doppelganger is now playing his role while Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev has become Russia’s unofficial ruler.

In the past 24 years, Putin & Co. have systematically diluted, undermined, or perverted most official Russian institutions. Whether national elections or private property, the Russian Orthodox Church or the Constitutional Court, mass media or political parties – these and other Russian structures and milieus are all more or less compromised. They have suffered manipulation, instrumentalization, hollowing out, infiltration, and the like. Even the most prominent and powerful institution in Russia, the presidency, has had an unclear status since Dmitry Medvedev’s peculiar presidency from 2008 to 2012.

Against this backdrop, what will the informal methods and public mechanisms for determining Putin’s successor or successor team look like? The Russian succession problem is complex, and its solution is unclear in several respects.

The challenges facing Putinism 2.0

First, it is unclear what is at stake for each player with political and economic influence in the event of a transfer of power. What impact will the choice of one leadership over another have on the protagonists in the upper echelons of the power elite? Can they improve, retain, or lose their positions, privileges, and/or freedoms? What is their level of commitment? Could some even lose their lives?

Such questions are difficult to answer not only for observers but also for the participants themselves. Under Putin, the behavior of the Russian state has become increasingly arbitrary. Consequently, some players may see the succession issue as existential. They will therefore vigorously protect themselves or their candidates for the new leadership.

Second, it is unclear which individuals are capable and willing to vie for the presidency or at least inclusion in a new collective leadership, and which are not. There may be numerous men and women in the Russian elite today considering a run for office. Some have sufficient political and/or economic resources to seek a top position. Others may have ambition but not enough money and influence for this.

What happens if no consensus can be reached?

Which intelligence services and other armed agencies and ministries of Russia will allow participation in a succession competition? Will the various “power organs” be able to agree within their own departments and with each other on who can apply and who cannot? And what happens if no consensus can be reached?

If Putin were to suddenly resign or die (or be declared dead), according to the constitution, the Russian Prime Minister, currently Mikhail Mishustin, would become the acting president. Given the pattern of Putin’s rise from prime minister to acting and then constitutional president,The elected President in the years 1999-2000, Mischustin, suddenly emerged as a political heavyweight. However, Mishustin is neither a well-connected “silovik” (literally: strongman, i.e. with a background in an armed service) nor a prominent public figure.

It can be presumed that his limited influence and popularity are precisely the reasons why he has retained and thus far exercised his position. Potential future Prime Ministers under Putin (or his doppelganger) could possess similar “qualities.” If a new Prime Minister with significant influence and/or prominence were to be appointed, they would likely be a probable successor to Putin. However, as in the nomination of the presidential candidate itself, this person would need to be able to garner broad coalition support.

Referendums in Russia have long ceased to be democratic

The related third question is: Who will form the “selection commission” that nominates the presidential candidate or a new Prime Minister for acclamation by the people? The outcome of the sham election would, as usual, be predetermined. Will this committee comprise the Security Council or a smaller or larger circle of individuals? Who will define the boundaries of the kingmakers’ circle?

Even if a consolidated selectorate forms in one way or another: What happens if the selectors cannot reach a consensus on their preferred new president or collective leadership circle? And in particular: What happens if entire clans, ministries, or authorities favor different candidates? Could it even happen that influential members of the selectorate take opposing ideological positions?

Normally, in such a situation, one would recommend letting the people decide. However, referendums in Russia have not been democratic for more than two decades. Putinist “elections” aim to achieve national validation of the predetermined leader, rather than enabling a free, fair competition between independent political parties.

The winner of a Russian presidential election is determined in advance, not as a result of a vote. The sudden holding of nationwide elections with an uncertain outcome would run counter to behavioral patterns that thousands of state officials, party functionaries, and police officers have cultivated over two decades. For national, regional, and local bureaucrats, it could be simply impossible to conduct real elections without prior preparation and/or external assistance.

Conclusion: Russia’s power transition could be chaotic

Russia’s leadership change is fraught with triple uncertainty. The level of commitment to the present ruling elite, the potential circle of presidential candidates, and the boundaries of the selectorate determining the successor are all unclear. A solution to these questions is currently not institutionally predetermined. Neither a central committee nor clan consensus, a dynastic principle, nor an electoral process can authoritatively and sustainably address this.

Such uncertainty does not necessarily entail a chaotic power transition or even a civil war. However, it makes an unorderly interregnum more likely than a smooth transition to Putinism 2.0. While the extent to which potential confrontations between powerful actors may escalate is unpredictable, the assumption that conflict situations can be avoided during the transition of power seems overly optimistic.

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