It is always risky to make definitive pronouncements about the future prospects of Russian politicians. Now that Vladimir Putin has started his fourth term as Russia’s president, we again start discussions of who his potential successor might be, since, unless the Russian Constitution is changed, he will run up against the prohibition of holding more than two consecutive terms in office. Moreover, there is the simple reality of biology: at some point, Putin will no longer be capable of wielding supreme executive power—and he will either want to be able to enjoy his retirement or to have preparations made to secure his legacy once he has departed from this mortal vale.
But recall that after Boris Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, and for the subsequent two years that followed, the name “Vladimir Putin” never appeared on any of the lists compiled by Russian and foreign experts of likely presidential successors. There is a high probability that the next person who occupies the presidential chair in the Kremlin is someone who is not on the radar of anyone in the analytical community right now—someone who at this moment may be laboring in near-obscurity in a provincial center or in the mid-level echelons of the government. Moreover, Dmitry Medvedev, who was nominated to serve once again as prime minister, submitted to the Duma the outlines of a new cabinet that displaces some of the people, like former deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who consistently have appeared on the lists of Russian presidential papabilie.
In some ways, focusing on names and playing the games of “who’s in” and “who’s out” distracts us from the more important analytical questions: to identify the features of people Putin is likely to need and want in positions of power in the coming months and years.
If we think of Putin’s tenure in office as a play, then the first act was to arrest the alarming decline and collapse of the Russian state. The second was to reverse those negative effects and to commence the rebuilding of Russian capabilities, a mandate that continued through the period of the tandem when Putin served as prime minister in Dmitry Medvedev’s administration. The third act is, from Putin’s point of view, one of tragedy. Rereading his election manifesto of 2012, the return to the presidency was supposed to be marked by Russia’s return as one of the world’s great powers—something that the Sochi Winter Olympics were to display. The Ukraine crisis, however, derailed Putin’s plans; it has led to a growing estrangement of the West and the prospect of Russian disintegration and isolation from the global economy.
The curtain rises on Putin’s fourth act, therefore, in the midst of a new crisis, and the first scenes will be the search for the exit from that crisis. Whether this comes about because of a new strategic partnership with China, or the restoration of pre-existing ties with Europe (following along the lines of French president Emmanuel Macron’s call for a new ‘historic dialogue’ between Europe and Russia), Putin must reconceptualize the basis of Russian economic and strategic power. To the extent that Dmitry Medvedev may not be up for that job, the stage has been set for Putin to bring back into the halls of power his economic “emergency man,” Aleksei Kudrin. At the same time, Putin must generate a new social contract with the so-called “Generation P”—younger Russians whose formative experiences were not Soviet collapse and Russian degradation of the 1980s and 1990s, but who came to political maturity amidst the prosperity and opportunity of the 2000s.
The play must then continue to the denouement of the fourth act: consolidation. The system Putin created must be able to outlive its creator and show its prowess at perpetuation, in order to secure his legacy.
For the first part of the fourth act, we should expect a certain degree of continuity in Russian governing affairs, which is why the proposed Medvedev cabinet retains key figures like finance minister Anton Siluanov, who would also be promoted to become a deputy prime minister. Getting through the existing problems—the economy, Ukraine, Syria and instability in the Eurasian space (Armenia may be a harbinger for developments in Belarus and Kazakhstan)—is the immediate priority. But then it will be time to begin the handoff to a new political generation.
Sergei Kiriyenko, the former prime minister and the first deputy head of the presidential administration, has been spearheading the recruitment and testing of new cadres. The provincial governorships are one of the new training and proving grounds for the next generation of Russian executives to demonstrate their chops. Kiriyenko has made it a priority to develop lists of new candidates “under 50” who can be promoted into higher positions—reflecting that Putin’s team has absorbed one key lesson of the Leonid Brezhnev era of stagnation: relying on the same cohort of people to age in office and to provide no light at the end of the political tunnel for younger figures to seek advancement will create the same conditions which destabilized the Soviet political order.