It’s official: Vladimir Putin plans to return as Russia’s president after elections in March and could remain in the position until 2024. President Dmitri Medvedev is expected to swap positions with Putin and serve as Russia’s next prime minister.
In a Q&A, Matthew Rojansky analyzes Putin’s return and what it means for Russia and its international relations. Rojansky argues that Putin’s new term will largely bring a continuation of the status quo. While Putin’s grip on power will arouse anxieties in the West, he will not undo the U.S.-Russia reset and, for now, this is largely good news for the West.
- What is the significance of Putin’s imminent return to the presidency?
- Was there ever any doubt that Putin would retake the helm?
- What’s next for President Medvedev?
- What does Putin’s so-called return mean for Russia’s democracy?
- How popular are Putin and the ruling United Russia Party?
- Will Putin reform Russia’s economy?
- Will Putin change Russia’s foreign policy?
- How will Putin influence the reset with the United States?
The announcement puts to rest the intense speculation over the past several months—inside and outside of Russia—over the presidency. There were rumors that Medvedev, Putin, or a dark-horse candidate selected behind the scenes could be Russia’s next president, and the announcement ends the uncertainty.
Putin’s return sends a signal of clarity and stability not only to members of the Russian government whose livelihoods depend on this, but also to Russia’s population, businessmen, and foreign investors. This is not to say that this is an exclusively positive development, but it’s certainly a stabilizing turn.
It represents continuity of the Russian system. The economic order is not going to change dramatically. Those corporations that have been favored will continue to be favored. And the people who are close to Putin are the ones who have benefitted most over the past decade and this is unlikely to be any different going forward. Politics won’t change and foreign policy is unlikely to be adjusted significantly.
The biggest change is Medvedev’s role and those associated with Medvedev’s camp. Medvedev is known as a liberal relative to Putin, but he should always be thought of as a member of Putin’s team. Medvedev is now a lame-duck president even though he is expected to return as the next prime minister—this has not been confirmed yet—and there are six months until he formally hands back power to Putin. The switch will have a chilling effect on senior officials in the Russian government, as no one wants to do anything that they won’t have time to walk back before the new leadership comes in.
Interestingly, some of the influential members in Medvedev’s inner circle had been saying in no uncertain terms that Medvedev would run again. This may have been wishful thinking on their part and no doubt hurts their credibility moving forward, but they might not have had anything to lose.
There was also speculation that there could be some truth to this. Maybe the current arrangement with Putin as the prime minister still calling the major shots would persist. Or maybe both Medvedev and Putin would run and this could be the creation of a two-party system in Russia.
Obviously all of this turned out to be wrong.
With Putin being the most powerful person in Russia by far, most analysts had a feeling that he would ultimately return. Putin never actually left and he was always involved in and approved—either before or after the fact—every major decision that Medvedev took. It’s important not to look at Medvedev as a Putin rival. That’s not how he came to power. Medvedev was selected by Putin because he was trusted for his unswerving loyalty. This could’ve changed in the last four years, but more likely Medvedev and Putin maintained a close relationship and eventually reconciled on this decision.
The most likely role for Medvedev is prime minister under President Putin starting in March. But Medvedev could receive a different government job, possibly the chief judgeship of the constitutional court. He has the skill set as a lawyer to be successful in the position and it’s in keeping with his technocratic and reformist mindset.
He could also play a more international role and serve as an ambassador-at-large on global security. He could be Russia’s man who travels around the world to major international disasters. Medvedev has cultivated a statesman image during his four years as president and seems to enjoy the foreign policy dimension.
Medvedev is likely to remain a spokesman and manager for Putin’s team on modernization. He’s the guy who represents the side of Putinism that believes in technology, innovation, and economic modernization. Skolkovo, the so-called city of innovation, will be one example of the newer initiatives that Medvedev will remain involved in for the foreseeable future.
Medvedev also has his own reputation and stature. While he is subject to Putin’s influence, he could choose a more independent option similar to the Mikhail Gorbachev model. In this light, he could found an organization comparable to Gorbachev’s Green Cross International or the Clinton Global Initiative. Medvedev would have little trouble fundraising and gaining international exposure.
He’s unlikely to be an independent domestic political actor who runs for office without the active support of the ruling United Russia Party and Putin himself. It is also doubtful that he will engage in active political criticism of the Putin administration. This would be unwise. But internationally, Medvedev could leverage his liberal credentials and serve as a figure similar to Vaclav Havel or Jimmy Carter and observe elections, attend major conferences, and begin to develop an aura internationally that he couldn’t have at home.
The simple answer is that this does not strengthen Russia’s democracy. But it’s a mixed picture.
Putin is likely to prevail in the upcoming election in a legitimate fashion—at least technically speaking—just like his return is allowed by the constitution. But the takeaway feeling from the process will not be democratic. And there will be some clear instances of explicit violations as we’ve seen already in recent bans of opposition parties that could have posed a threat to United Russia in December’s parliamentary elections.
Putin is not going to deconstruct the power structure. He will have more formal authority and this buys him some breathing room. He could use this opportunity to take a more liberal line and capture some of Medvedev’s reformist agenda. He’s been talking about economic reform and giving more freedom to non-governmental organizations. This could, however, simply be designed to placate centrist or liberal voters ahead of back-to-back elections, and it doesn’t cost him much to use this rhetoric.
The major consequences of Putin’s return will not be known for some time. If Putin serves two consecutive terms, he will have dominated Russia’s political stage for more than twenty-four years—over twenty as president—putting him in the same category as Leonid Brezhnev and Josef Stalin. Decades of supremacy send a historic message that Russia is back to the age of dynasties and even the pretense of a democracy begins to break down. This is not going to be felt tomorrow, but could happen in the coming years.
On the surface, Putin is one of the most popular political figures in Russia. Surveys indicate that Putin has enjoyed a high of 80 percent support—this is the functional equivalent of “everyone loves you”—and it’s now down to 60 to 70 percent. His popularity is likely to spike given the latest announcement as Putin’s supporters like his take-charge attitude and will almost certainly enjoy his forecasted return to power.
United Russia is down from a high of 65 percent to around 40 percent. This is a significant decline for the ruling party. But the most telling statistics are when Russians are asked to assess their feelings about the government. Russians are more reluctant to criticize powerful individuals who enjoy a cult of personality, but the majority doesn’t have confidence in its government. Russia’s government is not broadly respected as an effective institution.
Regardless, the ruling United Russia Party is likely to win a majority in the parliamentary elections. There is no credible alternative. Every effort to create a new option has been nipped in the bud. And it’s not in the concrete interest of people who have lived through a decade of privation after the fall of the Soviet Union when the country was more democratic, but poorer, to pursue democratic transition at the cost of instability and economic decline.
A new theme for Putin is economic reform, but it’s not a new idea for Medvedev. For Putin to be taking up the topic personally, it could be emblematic of what lies ahead in his new term. Putin has talked about forcing some bitter medicine on Russian industry and making sure that there is more accountability and efficiency. He recognizes the looming budget crisis as oil and gas output plateaus. Even if global demand for oil and gas exports continues to grow, prices may continue to be volatile.
And at the same time, the demands on Russia’s budget are inevitably growing as the population ages. Social payments will go up as a huge percentage of the population will need support in the coming years.
This means that Russia has no choice but to modernize its economy. It can no longer rely on oil and gas extraction alone. The economy enjoys a comparative advantage in human capital with a well-educated and skilled population. But typically the benefits don’t go to Russia. The best and the brightest leave the country. The most famous example is the Nobel Prize being awarded last year to two Russians working in the West. This offended Putin and may have served as a wake-up call.
The other big issue is corruption. Over the long term, the challenge for Putin will be how he can tackle corruption at an operational level while tolerating it and indeed depending on it at a strategic level. That’s a contradiction that he may be unable to resolve.
Finally, Putin faces some short-term economic reform challenges. He needs to keep Aleksei Kudrin, Russia’s long-serving finance minister, on board, even though Kudrin has already said that he may quit the government. Kudrin expected to be prime minister, but that obviously creates competition with Medvedev.
Broadly speaking, the theme is continuity. Russia will try to balance old power blocs—the United Nations Security Council and G8—with new groupings—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the so-called BRICS. Putin is likely to continue to rely on Medvedev in some capacity to manage several of Russia’s key relationships.
There will be some changes in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, which Putin has called Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests.” Medvedev was relatively consistent with Putin’s policies, but Medvedev’s style was more conciliatory.
Putin will lean hard on Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine. He will keep gas prices high as he’s allowed to do under the current contract between Russia and Ukraine and try to push Ukraine into the Russia-dominated customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, rather than Europe’s free-trade area. Putin may also take the chance provided by Belarus’s worsening economic isolation and political unrest to oust Aleksandr Lukashenko in favor of a more dependable Kremlin ally.
There will be continued tension with Georgia. Putin and President Mikheil Saakashvili have a deeply troubled relationship. The personal attacks back and forth have been extensive and wounding. But until 2013, when Saakashvili may leave office, there are not too many opportunities for change.
In Central Asia and the southern and eastern periphery of Russia, Moscow will cooperate with Washington to keep the flow of drugs, arms, and Islamism out of Afghanistan from infiltrating the post-Soviet space and Russia. There is also real concern in Moscow about the rise of China. There is a sense of trepidation about China’s economic, military, and demographic power. Putin may reach out and try to counter China’s muscle by courting Asian cooperation with India or the United States.
The U.S.-Russia reset is mostly about concrete results. The key accomplishments of the reset include signing the New START arms control treaty, cooperation in Afghanistan, UN sanctions on Iran, and the resolution on Libya. All of this came with the backing of Putin, even when Medvedev was formally in the driver’s seat making the decisions.
There will not be a rollback of the major accomplishments of the reset.
But the details will change. The situation can be compared to coaching a football team. The man calling the plays makes a difference, but he’s not going to go against the overall strategy of the head coach. With Putin now directly calling the plays himself, it will result in a different dynamic with the United States.
Putin will not have the same personal rapport with President Obama that Medvedev enjoyed and enthusiasm for the reset may wane on the American side with Putin’s return. The Bilateral Presidential Commission that Obama and Medvedev created to advance bilateral cooperation on everything from healthcare to counterterrorism may suffer, as it has not been adequately institutionalized and will lose the high-level personal attention it has had to date.
But Putin is not anti-American and the overall approach to the relationship will stay the same. The reset has always been part of Putin’s own strategy.