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Who will succeed Vladimir Putin?

Recently there was speculation in the press about a possible abdication by Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin. Having dominated Russian politics for more than 15 years, Putin is being confronted with a harsh reality. A recent Bloomberg survey polling economists indicates that Putin’s economic policy was scored an “F”, the lowest possible grade, by 27 per cent of respondents. Another 50 per cent awarded him the next two poorest grades. Bill Clinton’s famous dictum, “it’s the economy, stupid”, which he used to explain his victory over President George Bush the elder, could be equally valid for Putin.

August 1, 2016 - Marcel H. Van Herpen - Articles and Commentary


However, this time, it is the other way around. At a time when Brent crude oil is trading at below 30 US dollars per barrel and the rouble has lost 50 per cent of its value since the annexation of Crimea, the Russian population is being confronted with increasing pauperisation, which is having a negative impact on both their material well-being and their health.

Three scenarios

Despite his high popularity ratings, one cannot exclude the possibility that popular discontent will mount in response to increasing poverty and rising prices. The mass demonstrations in Moscow after the rigged Duma elections in December 2011 were already a clear sign. The Kremlin’s reaction was a massive clampdown on the opposition. The question now is what will happen? Will an eventual expression of popular discontent lead to further oppression or will it have consequences for Putin’s position?

It is certainly likely that the Kremlin will opt for further repression, helped by the Russian people’s tendency to blame the tsar’s subordinates, as opposed to the tsar himself, for their problems. A recent bill, introduced to allow agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB) to open fire on crowds, indicates as much. One can also expect the Kremlin to seek new military adventures abroad in order to deflect attention away from the country’s economic woes, as well as stir up patriotic feelings.

 However, tsars, including communist tsars such as Nikita Khrushchev, are sometimes toppled. The way in which Mikhail Gorbachev was removed from power by Boris Yeltsin was far from gentle. So why should Putin be immune to such a fate? In the biographical book First Person, published in 2000, Putin himself said about Helmut Kohl: “… After 16 years, all people, including the stable Germans, get tired of a leader, even a leader as strong as Kohl.” Putin’s “16 year limit” will be reached on December 31st 2016. In Putin’s own words, the Russian people have the right “to get tired” of him. However, Russia is not Germany. Therefore, the question is not so much what would happen if Putin were to lose the support of the Russian population, but rather what would happen if he were to lose the support of his inner circle? This is far from clear. Under the authoritarian Putinist system, there are no institutionalised procedures to organise a succession, apart from elections which, as a rule, are rigged and manipulated. In the United States, there is the function of vice president, whereas this function does not exist in Russia. In this sense, not much has changed since Winston Churchill’s famous dictum that the Kremlin’s power struggles resembled the spectacle of “bulldogs fighting under a carpet”; an outsider only hears the growling and has to wait to see which dog will emerge as the victor.

There are at least three scenarios for Putin’s succession. The first scenario would be the outcome of a popular revolt, eventually in the form of a colour revolution. The second scenario would be “leadership fatigue”; to be at the helm of a state for 16 years takes its toll, even for a leader in good health (which seems to be the case), and there may come a moment when he starts to think about organising his own succession. The third scenario would be an internal “soft coup” by Kremlin insiders.

The first scenario seems to be the most improbable. The “non-systemic” opposition is too feeble and too dispersed in Russia. Moreover, Putin, who has an iron grip on the military and paramilitary power structures, would not hesitate to use all available means to suppress such a revolt.

Meteoric rise

There have been some recent rumours which indicate that the second scenario is possible. To some, it looks like Putin is grooming Alexey Dyumin, his ex-bodyguard and the goalkeeper in his private ice hockey club, to become the future Russian president. Dyumin is Putin’s confidante. In 2014, as commander of the Special Operations Force which played a major role in the occupation of Crimea, he ex-filtrated former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from Ukraine.

Dyumin’s career is nothing short of spectacular. From colonel in the presidential security service, he was promoted to major general and then to lieutenant general. On December 24th 2015 he was appointed deputy defence minister under Sergey Shoygu. Shortly after, on February 2nd 2016, he was appointed governor of Tula. Dyumin’s latest promotion was said to be “a bid to give him political experience of running a region ahead of another meteoric promotion.” Could this be an indication that Putin is “grooming” a successor, as some Russian sources suggest? Indeed, it could be a sign that Putin is preparing a candidate for his succession. Moreover, there is a historical parallel: the close relationship of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, with his bodyguard (and tennis partner), Alexander Korzhakov. Korzhakov also had powerful ambitions but, in the end, he was side-lined by Anatoly Chubais. Putin could use Dyumin as a form of “insurance” in case he has to step down for health reasons. In all likelihood, Dyumin’s fate will be similar to that of Korzhakov. In the Florentine environment of Russian politics, with its many warring factions and feuding clans, merely being mentioned as “Putin’s possible successor” is a kiss of death.

 Even if we cannot exclude the possibility that Putin could quit the presidency voluntarily and resort to the same procedure as Boris Yeltsin by appointing a trusted but unknown figure to the role of acting president, there are two reasons why this is unlikely. The first is that Putin is not currently displaying any signs of “leadership fatigue.” In fact, it is quite the opposite. Rated by Forbes as “the world’s most powerful person,” in both 2014 and 2015, he is not only conducting a hyperactive and aggressive foreign policy, but has made it clear from the start that he wants to remain in power for as long as possible. This is why Medvedev’s fake presidency was utilised in 2008, allowing Putin to return as president in 2012. In the meantime, the presidential term was extended from four to six years, enabling Putin to stay in power until 2024.

Excluding the scenario of Putin falling ill, one can assume that he will cling to power for as long as possible, not least because he considers his presidency to be a personal vocation. Vladislav Surkov, the former first deputy chief of the presidential administration, called him a “person who was sent to Russia by fate and by God in the country’s darkest hour.” Putin, sent by providence to repair the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” (the demise of the Soviet Union), is clearly not going to give up his self-imposed mission of restoring the empire.

Politburo 2.0

There is a second reason why the scenario of Putin appointing Dyumin as his successor is unlikely. It is because the Putinist system is much more collegial than western observers generally assume. In Soviet times, the collegial ruling body was the politburo. Although it led a shadow existence under Stalin, it exercised real power after his death. The members of this small committee chose the new general secretary (called “first secretary” between 1953 and 1966). Although a Politburo no longer exists in Putin’s Russia, there is a body which is a worthy successor to this Soviet-era institution: the Security Council of the Russian Federation. Unlike the politburo, which was at the apex of the power pyramid representing the Communist Party, this council is not related to the ruling United Russia party. It is a purely bureaucratic organ that is chaired by the President. Interestingly, the council has an inner circle of 13 permanent members and an outer circle of 17 members. As such, it mimics the structure of the former politburo, which also had an inner core of members and an outer circle of candidate members.

What is striking is the dominant position of the intelligence services in the inner circle. Seven of the 13 permanent members have a KGB background. Apart from Putin himself, these members are Nikolay Patrushev, the secretary of the council, Rashid Nurgaliyev, his deputy, Aleksandr Bortnikov, director of the FSB, Sergey Ivanov, head of the presidential administration, Mikhail Fradkov, director of the SVR (the foreign intelligence service) and Sergey Naryshkin (chairman of the Duma). Tellingly, the army is kept outside this central power structure. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, is not a permanent member and the director of the GRU, the military intelligence service, is not even a member. The other regular members are mainly presidential envoys to the different districts who have no power base of their own.

 Therefore, the composition of the Security Council offers a good indication of what can be expected should Putin decide to resign (or if he is removed): the intelligence services will do their utmost to maintain a dominant position in Russia’s power structure whilst keeping the armed forces at arm’s length. Hence, it is safe to predict that an eventual power struggle will ensue withinthe secret services. Taking into account the fact that Fradkov, born in Samara, and Nurgaliyev, a Volga Tatar, are relative outsiders, and that Naryshkin, apart from his friendship with Putin, lacks his own power base, it is likely that the struggle for Putin’s succession will be fought between three contenders: Nikolay Patrushev, Aleksandr Bortnikov and Sergey Ivanov. Interestingly, Putin has already mentioned two of them, Patrushev and Ivanov, 16 years ago in his biography and described them as the people whom he trusted most.

Patrushev: The new strongman?

In recent interviews, Patrushev, who headed the FSB from 1999 to 2008, increasingly presents himself as a new strongman, possibly in reaction to Putin’s grooming of Dyumin. In an interview published in Moskovskiy Komsomolets, Patrushev declared that Russia and Ukraine are “one people, temporarily [sic] divided [by frontiers]” and that “the global community must be grateful to Russia for [taking] Crimea.” In another interview, a few days later, he said that “the strategic goal of the West is the destruction of Russia”, adding that in the case of an escalation of conflict with Turkey, “if the [NATO] Alliance supports Ankara, the most logical answer is to invade the Baltic states. All Baltic states are ours.”

Patrushev once famously called the members of the Russian secret services a “new nobility” who did not work for money but for the greater good of their country. Should Putin decide to resign before, or just after, the presidential elections of 2018, it is safe to assume that most of the “dogs under the carpet” will have a KGB/FSB ID chip in their ear.

The recent attacks on oligarchs, even those close to Putin, fit into this schedule. The secret services men despise the oligarchs, not just because they envy their wealth but also because they consider these nouveaux riches who live offshore, invest abroad and pay no taxes to be bad patriots. Putin has always maintained a certain balance between the siloviki and the oligarchs. He only attacked those oligarchs who tried to gain political influence, such as Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. However, there has recently been a spate of attacks on Kremlin-friendly oligarchs. One of them is Vladimir Yakunin, who is a long-time friend of Putin: both were members of the “Ozero” co-operative in the 1990s. In August 2015 Yakunin resigned as president of the Russian Railways, allegedly because his son had applied for British citizenship, a move that was widely seen as an “act of betrayal” in the “war with the West.”

Another oligarch who fell out of favour was Sergey Pugachev, owner of the Mezhprombank and colloquially known as “Putin’s banker.” Pugachev came under investigation for embezzling government loans and had to flee from Britain to France (where he is safe because he has French citizenship). These are signs that in the present climate of confrontation with the West, the “offshore” oligarchs are losing influence compared to the hardliners in the intelligence services. Therefore, an interesting question is how the “new nobility” reacts to publications in the West accusing Putin of having accumulated a personal wealth of 40 billion US dollars, which would make him not only the richest oligarch but also by far the richest man in Europe.

These accusations coincided with press stories stating that Putin’s son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov (married to his daughter Katerina), received a cheap state loan for his SIBUR company, the largest Russian processor of petrochemicals. The interest rate on this loan was only two per cent, instead of the usual seven. The whole debacle had a whiff of the cronyism and corruption reminiscent of the final years of Yeltsin’s rule, which were characterised by the enrichment of the Semya (i.e. the Yeltsin family). Therefore, Putin’s main concern when picking a successor could be the same: finding someone trustworthy enough to safeguard him from prosecution.

The rumour that he has started grooming Dyumin might be a sign that he is putting more trust in this unknown bodyguard than in his inner circle of intelligence services colleagues. However, the exact scenario of Putin’s succession remains completely open.

Marcel H. Van Herpen is the author of three books on Putin’s Russia: Putin’s Propaganda Machine – Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy (2016); Putin’s Wars – The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism (2014, 2015 second edition); and Putinism – The Slow Rise of a Radical Right Regime in Russia (2013).      

*This article first appeared in the May-August (No 3-4) issue of New Eastern Europe magazine.

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