How long can Putin last?
To understand why, let’s look at the research into autocratic regimes. Political scientists Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz have found that when an autocratic leader starts losing power, one of these three things usually results:
- A new autocratic group takes over, creating a new but still authoritarian regime.
- The original regime hangs on, but someone from the incumbent group replaces the outgoing leader.
- Democratically elected leaders replace the incumbent group altogether.
None of these is yet likely in Russia. Let’s examine each in turn.
1. A completely new autocratic group steps into power
We saw in Iran and during the Arab Spring what happens when revolutionary groups oust autocratic leaders. Democracy doesn’t take its place; rather, another autocratic regime moves in. That’s especially likely after a violent overthrow.
But Putin, with his KGB history, has a specific and rather homogenous entourage — Russia’s siloviki, who come into politics from long careers in the security and military services. The influence and the image of the siloviki even transformed the Kremlin’s political culture. Over time, Putin’s associates — regardless of their professional background — started emulating his gunslinger’s gait.
Silovoki’s power goes beyond their specific security organizations, as they influence Russia’s foreign policy and budget. The exponential boost of Russia’s military budget even led former finance minister Alexei Kudrin to resign in 2011.
The siloviki signal that the military and security services are on Putin’s side. No similarly organized alternative to the siloviki appears ready to take power in the Kremlin. Where would they come from? The Russian military is tremendously popular and widely trusted, more so than any alternative organization. Given Putin’s tremendous and apparently genuine popularity, despite Russia’s economic woes, overthrowing him wouldn’t add legitimacy to the new group.
What’s more, a violent overthrow could destabilize the North Caucasus, as it may endanger the power balance between Moscow and local authorities, especially in Chechnya. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov constantly pledges his allegiance to Putin personally. If he does not accept the new regime, the likelihood of another secessionist movement may increase.
2. The Putin regime stays in power, but with a new face
This could happen only if Putin decides to step down, or — despite his ostentatious feats of strength — his health fails. And it would require strong Russian economic growth to distract voters from problems with democracy or human rights.
Yet economic growth is unlikely, given Western economic sanctions and sagging oil prices. In fact, as Stephen Crowley and Irina Olimpieva recently argued here in the Monkey Cage, economic woes are so pressing that Russia may be seeing more unrest soon. Yet, even Russia’s mortgage-owner protesters do not blame Putin for their troubles.
What’s more, for this to succeed, there would have to be viable candidates from Putin’s selectorate. That’s the key decision-making group that supports him, influencing major decisions. The trick would be to find someone who would continue Putin’s rule — and whom the others wouldn’t challenge.
That’s hard in part because Putin’s current image is that no one else could do his job. During the 2008-2012 swap with Dmitry Medvedev, it was clear that Putin was still pulling the strings. Assuming everything proceeds in a neat and orderly fashion, with Russia’s next presidential elections to be held in 2018, Putin seems a shoe-in. Current opinion polls put him roughly 80 points ahead of the nearest possible presidential contender.
Nor could we find candidates from among his current entourage or family. Putin’s two daughters are famously out of the spotlight and largely off-limits to the press. Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff, dismissed the possibility of running, saying one “shouldn’t change horses in midstream.” Nor is it likely that either the broader population or the political elite would support the ostentatious Kadyrov.
Should Putin decide not to run in 2018, he might be able to hand-pick defense minister Sergei Shoigu as his successor. Shoigu has managed to stay in the government since the early 1990s; he polls second on the list of Russia’s most-trusted politicians. He can bank on his tenure as the minister of emergency situations, during which he gained popular support for his hands-on approach.
However, what are the chances that Putin decides not to run in 2018, after all he has done to beef up his popularity at home, even amending the constitution to ensure he can remain in power? Very low. Geddes, Wright and Frantz argue that intra-leadership change is less likely in personalist regimes such as Russia, where one person largely makes all major domestic and foreign policy decisions.
And yet, of course, it is possible that a new leader will appear. After all, Putin himself came to power almost out of nowhere.
3. Democratically elected leaders replace Putin and the ruling United Russia party
Whenever it happens, this could be the safest possible exit for Vladimir Putin. As Alexander Debs and H.E. Goemans show, a new democratic regime poses less threat to the outgoing leader than a new autocratic regime. Specifically, new democratic leaders are less likely to exile, imprison or kill the outgoing leader. And a democratic transition offers the outgoing leader a peaceful exit, an approach that would sit well with the broader international community.
Yes, Putin could leave. But it doesn’t look likely
Of course, Russia has the democratic institutions that would allow a transfer of power from Putin to another regime. But all these institutions are firmly under the Kremlin’s thumb. And we’ve seen no signs that the popular vote may swing toward democratic opposition parties such as Yabloko or Parnas. No one expects them to win in the September Duma elections: not the opinion polls, and not even the liberal opposition itself. This is partly because of the possibility of electoral fraud, but also because of the simple fact that the liberal opposition doesn’t reach many people beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. To make matters worse, opposition parties refuse to unite their forces.
Moreover, Geddes, Wright and Frantz’s data suggest that personalist regimes are the least likely to democratize, particularly if there’s a foreign invasion, coup or uprising.
Barring a palace coup or some other force majeure event, Putin is likely to be with us not only through the 2016 parliamentary elections, but also through the presidential elections in 2018 — and beyond.
Nelli Babayan is a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy (based at the German Marshall Fund U.S.), associate fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin, and author of “Democratic Transformation and Obstruction: EU, US, Russia in the South Caucasus.” Find her on Twitter @nellibabayan.