It may seem a long way off, but whether President Vladimir Putin can retain power after 2024, when his current term ends, is the key question of Russian politics today. Putin, however, appears to be running out of palatable options for prolonging his reign beyond the constitutional limits.
Of course, constitutional limits in Russia aren't what they are in other places. The Kremlin controls the Russian parliament to an extent that makes it possible to change the constitution at any moment, making Putin president for life. That "nuclear option," however, is anathema to Putin, who, despite persistent election rigging in his favor, insists on democratic legitimacy as the basis for his rule.
Putin has repeatedly and publicly rejected the straightforward extension scenario. That makes it difficult to follow the path laid out by Kazakhstan leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. In March, Nazarbayev resigned as president for a new role as "national leader for life" with immunity from prosecution and a supervisory role over policy making. Nazarbayev's chosen successor as president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was elected by a landslide in June.
Another possibility has been to push for Russia's merger with neighboring Belarus, using the smaller authoritarian state's economic dependence on the bigger one. Such a maneuver would make it possible for Putin to head up the unified country. A 20-year-old union treaty between Russia and Belarus, which compels the nations to work toward a federation with a single currency and under a single flag, provides the legal basis for unification, and Belarus's constant need for cash - whose only source is Moscow while dictator Alexander Lukashenko runs the country - gives the Kremlin the necessary levers.
Lukashenko, however, has proved resistant to the merger idea. It may well be that Lukashenko showed he doesn't lack levers of his own when an abnormally high concentration of organic chlorides was suddenly found in Russian oil flowing to Europe through the Belarus pipeline system in April, and its exports had to be stopped. Russia had to scramble to minimize financial losses and live down the embarrassment. It seems no coincidence that pressure on Lukashenko eased somewhat after that.
This month, Putin took Lukashenko to the ancient Russian monastery of Valaam with the implicit goal of driving home to him the Russian president's oft-stated conviction that Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians are essentially the same people. Lukashenko, who, unlike Putin, usually makes no pretense of being religious, lit a candle before an icon but didn't move an inch toward the federation idea. No visible progress was reported after the meeting; Lukashenko continues insisting on securing economic preferences from Russia while keeping the unification discussion open indefinitely.
A third scenario for Putin to keep power is watering down the powers of the Russian presidency, strengthening those of the parliament and installing Putin as a powerful prime minister along the lines of most European political systems. Bloomberg News reported earlier this month that such a constitutional reform could be in the works.
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There are signs, however, that even if a parliamentary reform takes place, it won't lead to a power transfer from the president to the prime minister. Days after the Bloomberg report, parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who, before he took the job, was domestic policy czar in Putin's administration, published an article detailing desirable changes to the constitution. Volodin called for strengthening the parliament - but not in a way that would allow Putin to keep his powers in a different job.
Instead, Volodin proposed a role for the legislature in appointing cabinet ministers rather than just the prime minister. It's an idea he already voiced in April, and it would actually weaken the prime minister's role in forming the cabinet, setting up a consultation process between the strong president and the strengthened parliament. Given Volodin's status as a veteran Kremlin insider, the article signals that the "parliamentary" scenario for Putin isn't really being considered.
There are good reasons why not. In recent months, the Kremlin has had difficulties in pushing its candidates through regional elections. Candidates not approved by Moscow won three gubernatorial elections late last year. In a fourth, the Kremlin had to replace its candidate and re-run the election after a massive vote-rigging effort caused protests. Affiliation with United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party, now carries a stigma instead of offering an advantage. Even according to pollsters close to the Kremlin, the party's support hovers around 35%. In the September city council election in Moscow, pro-Kremlin candidates are running as independents: "United Russia" next to a name on the ballot is likely to lead to defeat in Russia's relatively liberal capital.
Turning the parliament into Putin's power base would require an unlikely revival United Russia's fortunes or a switch from party list voting to first-past-the-post constituencies for most parliament seats. But the latter option would require the Kremlin to manage hundreds of votes in the increasingly unreliable Russian provinces.
This leaves a fourth scenario - a version of what Putin did in 2008, letting a dependable ally, Dmitry Medvedev, run for president and staying on as prime minister to sit out a presidential term as required by the constitution. The difference, though, is that in 2019, an older Putin, weakened by Russia's lackluster economic performance and mounting problems with an out-of-control law enforcement apparatus, may have difficulty trusting anyone in his close circle to the extent he trusted Medvedev in 2008.
With no reliable path to a more or less legitimate extension of his power in five years' time, Putin may eventually drop his opposition to a Nazarbayev-style transition. If he doesn't, Russia may, for the first time since 1996, witness real political competition at the highest level. That's an exciting prospect, if only because popular protest against corruption and injustice - such as, for example, the growing movement against massive landfills close to residential areas - may lead to the emergence of new leaders capable of forcing new rules of engagement on the Kremlin's old guard.