In Russia’s winner-take-all system of power, outgoing presidents cannot guarantee that their successors will protect their interests. In democratic systems, of course, presidents lose elections and stand down. But in the context of Russia and other former Soviet states, those demitting office and their entourage have good reason to fear arrest by their successors for financial and other malpractices. This has been vividly illustrated in Kyrgyzstan in recent times.
Putin’s proposed changes aren’t without risks
Of the proposals Putin announced, the most significant change would transfer the appointment of the prime minister to the parliament. This would give the outgoing president a number of advantages — including weakening the executive power of the president’s successor, for instance. And this change opens up the possibility that Putin could stay on as prime minister, with the backing of a substantial legislative majority.
This proposal provides an elegant solution to the problem Putin faces, but it is not without risks. First, the Russian public expects its national government to take direct responsibility for economic and social policies — and also to take the heat for any public criticism of policy failures. Second, Russian citizens aren’t so happy about their leaders manipulating constitutional rules and norms for personal gain.
The results of our most recent survey illustrate these risks. We looked at data from a nationally representative survey of 1,590 Russian citizens 18 and older. The survey took place from April 4, 2018, to May 5, 2018, and covered public attitudes toward domestic political, economic, social and foreign policy issues.
Governments in Russia take the heat
In the post-Soviet era, Russian presidents have deflected blame for domestic problems onto both the government and parliament. This has weakened the authority of both institutions in the eyes of the Russian public. Survey respondents have rated the institution of the presidency well above parliament and the government.
Our survey found that more than 70 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of presidential performance on economic matters compared with less than 40 percent for the government. In addition, it found that the public had high expectations of the government’s responsibilities in many key policy areas.
Our results also suggest that public confidence in the government’s ability to provide for “ordinary” citizens has fallen since 2012. Surveys that we conducted in 2012 and 2014 revealed a steady decline.
Russians oppose constitutional manipulation
Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 triggered protests from a significant proportion of the population that favors limits on the length of time that any one leader can serve. This population has declined in size since 2012, but nonetheless it remains significant. In our 2018 survey, around 40 percent of respondents agreed that the same person should not be president for more than two terms.
Most importantly, this section of the population remains more likely to protest the authorities. Our survey found that more than 50 percent of those supporting limits on the tenure of leaders were willing to engage in peaceful protest.
So, will Putin stay on as prime minister?
These results suggest Putin may not want to become prime minister in 2024, because it would put him much more directly in the political firing line. As head of the national government, he would take responsibility in the public eye to deliver on key policy outcomes — and Russian governments generally fail in this regard. Moreover, he also would face coexisting with a new president and potential rival.
His address to parliament outlined a few clues about other options, however. He could lead a new constitutional organ, the State Council, with power to exert influence behind the scenes. This would maintain Putin’s influence over strategic decisions without responsibility for day-to-day governmental action. Or perhaps he will head the ruling party, which could potentially play a more significant role in the formation of the government. However, we suspect that this would also be unappealing to Putin for the reasons discussed above.
All of these options are in play, as is the possibility that Putin could leave power altogether with a more constrained president in place. For now, we simply do not know what Putin’s next steps will be in 2024, or his preferences. And given the high risks his next move entails, we are unlikely to know well in advance.
Paul Chaisty is professor of Russian and East European politics, University of Oxford.
Stephen Whitefield is Rhodes Pelczynski Fellow in Politics, Pembroke College, and professor of comparative Russian and East European politics, University of Oxford.