On March 18th, 2018, Russian citizens reelected Vladimir Putin as President of Russia. Putin cruised to victory without any serious opposition and won nearly 77% of the vote, securing the presidency for another six years. However, according to Article 81 of the Russian Constitution, Putin is constitutionally required to step aside in 2024 once his newly-won term is up. Article 81 raises the obvious question of how Putin and the Kremlin will manage 2024. Will there be a transition of power? Or will Putin decide to remain in power? If so, how?
Speculation abounds as to how Russia will tackle the 2024 question, and discussion of the issue flared up again due to Putin’s recent comments in his annual news conference. In short, a journalist asked Putin “Is there a need, in your opinion, to make changes, like maybe reassigning powers between the parliament, the government or even the president?” In his response, Putin rejected creating an entirely new constitution and any amendments to the first chapter of the constitution which he regards as “sacrosanct.” However, Putin continued, arguing that “All the other provisions can be amended in one way or another” but that any changes should be carried out with “extreme caution.” Finally, and most notably, in reference to term limits on Russian presidents, Putin declared that “we can probably remove it.”
With these new insights on Putin’s thought process regarding transition (or lack thereof) it is appropriate to assess the most likely scenarios for 2024. First, Putin could push to remove term limits, enabling him to stand for reelection. Second, Putin could pursue a true union state with Belarus according to The Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus and become the head of that entity, thus getting around the term limit requirement in the Russian constitution. Third, Putin could restructure power away from the presidency and towards the Federal Assembly, or perhaps another government body such as the Security Council where he would have a new position and title without compromising on his authorities.
Many experts believe Putin will move to abolish term limits and stand for reelection. In light of Putin’s recent comments, it seems increasingly likely. However, the move would be risky to Putin’s public support (support that Putin closely watches and uses to help determine his actions) given Russia’s current domestic political climate and widespread dissatisfaction with the sluggish Russian economy, with growth projections remaining under 2% for 2020 and 2021. Recent polls show that 86% of Russians found that their standard of living either got worse or stayed the same in 2019 (43% saying it remained the same and another 43% saying it worsened). Previous polls also indicate that Russians are most concerned with economic issues and not security or political freedoms. Considering a growing protest potential (around 30% of Russians said they would be willing to take part in protests), Putin’s abolishment of term limits could be the spark which brings the masses to the streets as his return to power did in 2011-12. Lastly, while support for term limits in Russia has slightly declined since 2012, 43% of Russians still support them (see table 2). With these factors in mind, it is almost certain that moderate to widespread protests would erupt if Putin moved to abolish term limits, an outcome the Kremlin would like to avoid.
Putin could also pursue a fully-integrated union state with Belarus, effectively making it a part of Russia, after which Putin would fill the union’s highest office and leave his tenure as President of Russia. However, there are some major obstacles in Putin’s way. Namely, Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, is unlikely to relinquish Belarus’ sovereignty and his personal hold on power. Lukashenko also recently insisted that any forced integration could result in war between the two countries. Additionally, while the majority of Belarusians support their current union with Russia, only 15-20% support any form of deeper integration. Lastly, Putin and Lukashenko met on December 7th, 2019 to discuss further integration, but ultimately only agreed to meet again in St. Petersburg. According to Sergey Rekeda, the Director of the Information and Analytical Center for the Study of the Post-Soviet Space of Moscow State University, this indicates the fairly deep contradictions in Putin’s and Lukashenko’s approaches to further integration, meaning that any major breakthroughs in this process are unlikely in the near future. Considering the unlikelihood of a Belarus-Russia Union, it seems that this option is a long shot and is unlikely to resolve Putin’s 2024 problem.
With the desire to avoid popular protests and the unlikelihood of a fully integrated union with Belarus in mind, it makes more sense for the Kremlin to pursue a managed transition of power from the presidency to another government body, be that the Russian Security Council or a newly-created institution. Putin could move to weaken the presidency through constitutional amendments and increase the power of his new position in whichever institution he ends up in. Indeed, in July 2019 Vyacheslav Volodin, the Chairman of the State Duma, expressed support for constitutional reforms aimed at balancing power more effectively between the executive and legislative branches, making this approach the most feasible option for Putin.
Putin’s new position would need enough power to counterbalance the new president when deemed necessary, especially in foreign policy. Consider that Putin did not enjoy sharing foreign policy decision-making with then-President Dmitry Medvedev from 2008–2012. Their split came to the forefront over the Libyan conflict in 2011, alluding to future problems this strategy may present. However, the managed transition approach solves the term limits dilemma while enabling Putin to exert influence over the Russian government. Additionally, a managed transition would increase the likelihood of avoiding widespread protests, help alleviate the real problem of an overconcentration of power in the Russian presidency, and jumpstart a wider process in the Russian government of passing the baton from Putin’s generation to the next. While Putin’s comments on abolishing term limits indicate the Kremlin is moving towards that option, a managed transition would be a wiser decision and better for the Russian system of government.
A native of Louisville, Kentucky and a graduate of Western Kentucky University, Chris Riehl is a master’s candidate at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs concentrating in international security studies and Europe & Eurasia.
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