In 1999, Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin appointed a competent, little-known security official named Vladimir Putin as acting prime minister, before steering him into the presidency. Here, Yeltsin thought, was a loyalist who would protect him and his family from prosecution but also safeguard Yeltsin’s legacy — a Russia that could never return to communism.
On Wednesday, Putin nominated a competent, little-known tax official named Mikhail Mishustin as prime minister. But unlike Yeltsin, Putin will not relinquish control when his term expires in 2024 or risk what he sees as his legacy — a strong authoritarian state carving out a growing role on the global stage.
Mishustin, rubber-stamped as prime minister by Russian lawmakers on Thursday, is seen by analysts as an obedient technocrat who will do what Putin tells him — and, if not, he will be blamed and probably replaced.
Like all unchallenged rulers — most notably China’s President Xi Jinping — Putin believes that no one else can do the job as well as he.
To maintain his grip on power later, Putin has tried to curb presidential powers before he steps down. But the announcement Wednesday to shift some greater authority to parliament was no nod to democracy. Opposition candidates will remain shut out.
Another Putin decade
Putin saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a colossal misstep, was dismayed by the messy chaos of the 1990s under Yeltsin and disdains the unpredictable inconvenience of democracy.
He was dismayed when his onetime mentor and boss, Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, was voted out of office in 1996 after being challenged in elections by a deputy. Criminal proceedings were launched against Sobchak in 1997, forcing him to flee to Paris.
After Yeltsin left office, frail and ill, he watched as Putin undermined the transition to democracy by scrapping the election of provincial governors in 2004. Yeltsin voiced a rare criticism of his successor, to no effect. Yeltsin was dead by the time Putin took a more substantial (technically legal) swipe at democracy by engineering a swap: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev became president as Putin took the prime minister post while retaining his power behind the scenes. Medvedev then became prime minister when Putin returned to the presidency in 2012.
Putin speaks of Russia as a respected global power that has risen from its knees, conveying what he sees as his historic mission to rebuild Russian state power — and remain a force in global affairs well into this decade, beyond the political lives of President Trump and other Western leaders.
Part of the country’s political DNA is its self-view as a “great power,” an idea threatened during the years of post-Soviet collapse in the 1990s.
The Russian euphemism for Putin’s creeping authoritarianism is “managed democracy.”
How he does it
Putin has been pondering his post-presidency influence for years.
He controls the siloviki, as the powerful political figures from Russia’s security apparatus are known, and he has somewhat curbed Russia’s oligarchs, whose interest is in stability and continuity. But protests against Russian authoritarianism this past summer sharpened his dilemma and underscored the risk of popular discontent against his continuing in power beyond the end of his term.
One option was the creation of a new entity, a union of Russia and Belarus, with Putin becoming its president. But that idea crashed when the longtime Belarusan president, Alexander Lukashenko, resisted and protests erupted in Belarus.
Swapping places yet again with Medvedev wasn’t going to work, because the latter was so unpopular. Medvedev resigned as prime minister on Wednesday and was appointed Thursday as deputy head of Russia’s Security Council.
In retaining control, Putin wants a veneer of credible legality to preserve his sense of legitimacy. He also knows that leaving power could not only see his mission unravel but also leave him and his family vulnerable.
He does not want to be another Pierre Nkurunziza, the Burundian president who plunged his country into protests and chaos by insisting on a third term, dubiously claiming his first term didn’t count because he was elected by parliament, not voters. Nor does he see himself as another Xi, who, under an effective Communist Party dictatorship, ditched term limits in an intricately choreographed exercise in March 2018.
But the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan offered a model.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, president since 1990, resigned last year, making way for a loyal successor with trimmed powers. Nazarbayev retains significant control as head of the nation’s powerful Security Council. He moved to reduce presidential powers two years before leaving the job.
According to analysts, Putin has left his options open on what role he will take when his presidential term expires. But he has signaled his determination to continue to wield power, especially on the significant matters of Russia’s global role, security and foreign policy.
What it means
It tells the world that Russia is unlikely to relinquish Crimea, which Putin annexed from Ukraine in 2014, nor will Russia stop interfering in what it sees as its privileged sphere of interests in neighboring countries. It reduces hopes for any shift to a more liberal, democratic system.
Brian Taylor, a political science professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the author of “The Code of Putinism,” said Putin’s motive was to secure himself a powerful role post-2024 and constrain the powers of his successor.
“Since Putin cannot remain as president after 2024 under the current rules, he needs to change the rules. This will potentially allow him to remain the dominant political actor even if he leaves the presidency,” he said. “The way he is going about constitutional reform now seems, at least in part, designed to give everything the veneer of popular support and democratic legitimacy.”
One check on Putin was the worry of backlash on the streets, Taylor said.
“If he simply tried to remove all limits and declare himself president for life, I think he would have faced some determined popular mobilization, although it’s hard to know how large or widespread this might have been,” said Taylor.
Putin as 'chaperone'
Speaking on U.S.-funded Nastoyashee Vremya TV, associated with Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, economist and Kremlin critic Sergey Aleksashenko said Putin’s message to the political elite was: “I will stay, I will not go anywhere and I will rule for a long time.”
“All these constitutional and legislative amendments are aimed at the intellectual elite, the political elite, Putin’s inner circle, who received a clear signal that I’m not tired and I’m not leaving,” said Aleksashenko, a former deputy finance minister under Yeltsin.
After 2024, Putin could wield influence as prime minister or as head of a powerful body, the State Council, or head of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, according to analysts.
“President Putin wishes to retain control over decisions related to the Russian military, broader geostrategic issues and his economic assets, but he does not want to govern Russia in perpetuity. His announcement allows some flexibility as to how he may do this, perhaps through chairing the State Council,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
She noted that Putin’s other announcement Wednesday of plans to increase social spending was designed to soften any public resistance to his plan.
“He will chaperone the transition after 2024,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “But he will not be there indefinitely, if for nothing else than for physiological reasons.”