Exactly what Vladimir Putin is up to with his proposed constitutional changes may be in doubt, but the bottom line is that he’s somehow going to stay in control of Russia after term limits again force him out of the presidency at the end of 2024.
Putin, 67, is Russia’s longest-serving and most iron-handed leader since Josef Stalin, and it’s been clear for over a decade that he’d like to follow his hero’s example and hold power until his dying breath. Indeed, such is the Russia he’s built that he may not feel safe retiring without retaining control.
The constitution bars a president from serving more than two consecutive terms, so he installed his protégé Dmitry Medvedev in that office after 2008. Putin spent four years as prime minister — and the real power — until retaking the presidency in 2012 (amid allegations of rigged elections) and returning Medvedev to the premiership.
Exactly how he’ll keep the reins after 2024 isn’t yet clear, and may not be for years. He may not even have decided yet: The actual constitutional changes don’t have to much resemble what he’s just suggested, and he could even say that a new constitution restarts the term-limits clock.
For now, though, he’s cleared the deck — having Medvedev and his entire Cabinet step down immediately after he announced the coming changes. The new PM is a technocrat, Federal Tax Service chief Mikhail Mishustin; Putin plainly doesn’t intend to let any potential rival hold even as much power as Medvedev wielded.
Putin’s rule of Russia is absolute, but he always ensures his government has a veneer of legitimacy, to make things easier for the Western leaders who enable him. Now he says he’ll put his constitutional changes to a national referendum — but Stalin held “free” elections in 1937, at the height of the Great Purge, and Putin has engineered a state where political campaigns and election results run exactly as he wants them to.
Russians have already begun to protest, but even a huge shift in popular sentiment is unlikely to prove a problem for Putin. He put down the protests that followed the sketchy elections that returned him to the presidency in 2011. Even Russia’s richest man was no match for him: He all but vanished Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s $15 billion fortune and threw him in prison for a decade after the oligarch criticized the country’s corruption. On his release, Khodorkovsky fled the country.
Western sanctions after Russia’s seizure of Crimea have done more to harm Putin’s standing than any opposition critic has managed; the resulting economic strains have clearly eaten away at Putin’s popularity.
But he hasn’t backed down, and his patience seems to be paying off. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hailed by American liberals as the new “leader of the free world” after President Trump’s election, is giving the Russian economy — and hence Putin’s popularity — a chance to recover by going ahead with plans for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bypass Ukraine and give Russian gas a bigger market in Europe.
In short, Vlad’s rule seems destined to continue until he’s too feeble to care. The downsides include a continued decay of any free Russian institutions and the painful lack of any clear potential successor — upping the odds that, when Putin inevitably does leave the scene, a major nuclear power will descend into chaos.
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