Putin and the Succession Question

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Conference Summary


Dr. Nikolai V. Zlobin, Senior Fellow and Director of Russian and Asian Programs, World Security Institute (WSI) and co-chairman of Russia Profile Advisory Board.

Mr. Peter Reddaway, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs George Washington University.


Dr. Zlobin explored at great length the various dimensions of the information, rumors and unofficial statements surrounding speculation, in Russia and the West, that Putin may opt for a third term in office. Zlobin made several important observations:

– Tension between Putin and the Russian political establishment is growing worse as his advisers jockey for influence by battling each other to gain the advantage over each other.
– One of the trademarks of the Russian political system is that each new ruler destroys the previous socio-political system and recreates the administrative system in his own image which often leads to disastrous consequences for the country.
– Putin is not interested in running for a third term but will become the power behind the throne regardless as he plays a personal role in picking his successor.
– Recent Levada polls have indicated the Russian people will strongly back the person Putin picks to be his successor due to his enormous popularity with the Russian electorate.
– A long-shot candidate among a list of 20 possible officials who might succeed Putin is Vladimir Yakunin, the chief of the Russian railways, as well as First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev, current Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov, governor Valentina Matvienko as well as some others.
– Putin can nominate two people for the elections: one candidate for president and another candidate for position of prime minister.
– The most important source of political influence and power for Putin after 2008 is the fact the he will be very re-electable because of his public support.

Professor Reddaway gave a lengthy discussion on the various scenarios that may come into play between now and the 2008 elections, offering ten different scenarios for how the situation will evolve between now and then in view of the current constitutional constraints. Reddaway’s key observations were:

– Officials in the Kremlin have been scheming since July to try to keep Putin in power and that a third term for Putin might be arranged – willingly or unwillingly by Putin himself.
– From July to September there was a strong push by unknown circles in the Kremlin to push Putin to seek a third term but that has now dissipated.
– Historical factors are very important to bear in mind as the current situation today has some similarities to the situation in 1999 when President Boris Yeltsin hand-picked Putin to be his successor and resigned six months early.
– Early elections are a real possibility (perhaps over 50%), as Putin might use early elections to throw his subordinates who are jockeying for power off balance to get the candidate he supports elected.


Dr. Zlobin addressed Putin’s political future and the freedom that he enjoys in being able to shape that future. As far as Putin’s immediate political future, Zlobin noted that it is important to bear in mind that Putin sees himself as not a politician in the traditional sense and sees himself as being apart from the political establishment. Therefore, it is difficult to predict whether he will actually stay on for a third term in office or simply "ride off into the sunset." Moreover, Putin clearly feels bored with being President and therefore wants to have a different role in Russian society, perhaps even as a major player in the Russian private sector. For example, Putin could become the head of a major energy conglomerate, or become President of the Russian Public Chamber, which officially would place him outside the system of power, but be close enough to enable him to retain some influence on the levers of power.

The Russian political system has no fundamentals allowing for the retention of political influence once the current president leaves. Zlobin noted that regardless of whether Putin stays or goes, there is no good way for him to leave the presidency without hurting democracy in Russia. He is doing so or will do so in the following ways:

– Putin is using his current popularity as political blackmail, as he keeps mentioning that he is electable again.
– To prevent from being seen as a lame duck, Putin will probably wait until the last minute to name his successor, and Putin probably doesn’t even yet know who will succeed him.
– A recent poll shows that 43% of the electorate polled would be happy to vote for whomever Putin chooses; which Zlobin notes is a symptom of the apathy of the Russian voters today.
– Once Putin leaves, when the Russian economy begins to deteriorate, it will tarnish not only his legacy but the legacy of his successor.

Professor Peter Reddaway started his presentation by noting that since July, some officials in the Kremlin like Igor Sechin have been trying to secure a third term for Putin using a variety of methods, but so far have not had any success. Reddaway observed that the situation today has some similarities to the situation in 1999 when President Boris Yeltsin hand-picked Putin to be his successor and resigned six months early. Professor Reddaway warned that elections could be called at any time, and stressed that the West needs to look out for these warning signs:

– General quickening of events, including arrests and harassments of business leaders of extreme nationalists.
– Any sudden dismissal of the government.
– If early Duma elections take place, President Putin will most likely resign when he dismisses the old Duma. He would then promptly announce his preferred candidate for the presidency election that would probably be held simultaneously with the Duma elections.

As regards how power will be transferred regarding both the Duma and the presidency, Reddaway offered these 10 potential scenarios for how the transfer of power might take place:

1. No early elections – both elections held on time – new Duma, new president.

2. The constitution will be changed allowing for a third term, but there will be no early elections.

3. There will be early Duma elections, but no early presidential elections.

4. There will be no early Duma elections, but early presidential elections.

5. There will be simultaneous early elections for both the Duma and president.

6. There will be early elections for the Duma and president, but at different times.

7. Power will not be transferred because elections are postponed due to a state of emergency.

8. Power will be transferred by non-constitutional methods.

9. Putin steps down as president, but then runs as the head of a pro-Kremlin party such as United Russia and then becomes Prime Minister. The law on the government is changed to make this position more powerful than the presidency.

10. A successor is elected, who then resigns a year or so later allowing the possibility of Putin running again, since the constitution currently only bars a person from running for more than two consecutive terms.

In their concluding remarks, each participant noted potential successors that they had considered could be the next President of Russia. Although they noted that there are many potential contenders, Dr. Zlobin and Professor Reddaway said that the following were the most likely contenders:

– Dmitry Medvedev, the current First Deputy Prime Minister and the person widely considered to be the frontrunner, as he currently has Putin’s undeclared but fairly clear support and a modicum of political capital to leverage if he runs.
– Sergei Ivanov, current Defense Minister, as he is a close personal friend of Putin.
– Vladimir Yakunin, the current chief of the Russian Railways. He is a close friend of Putin’s and is a member of his close circle of advisers.


The Jamestown Foundation 1111 16th St. NW 7th Floor Conference Room Washington, DC 20036