Nobody’s President? Putin Enters the Era of Transition
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Gleb Pavlovsky

President of the «Russia Institute».

The Russian political scene is entering a new phase. The official candidate for president in the election of March 2018 has not declared himself and is increasingly absent, while most discussion within the ruling elite focuses not on the next stage of the Putin era but on what will constitute the post-Putin era. 

Political life has returned to Russia. Who would have expected last fall that Alexei Navalny, best known hitherto as an anti-corruption campaigner, would be able to launch a juggernaut of a pre-electoral campaign a full fifteen months before polling day? I didn’t. We had gotten so used to the idea that nobody can influence a Russian electoral campaign that we forgot that someone might simply try to fight one.

By the middle of the year it was clear that Navalny’s public meetings were more than civic activism, and that an active political election campaign was underway. Russia’s political stage was full of life, which made Putin’s absence from it all the more noticeable and his silence louder. The problem for the Kremlin is that the importance of the election of March 2018 that many were dismissing as a formality or an irrelevance has grown, while the comparable stature of President Putin has not. Navalny is posing a challenge and a double question to the Kremlin: What will you do with me? And what will you do with this election? 

With the election less than four months away, Putin has not yet declared the candidacy that all expect. He is as visible as ever in the media, and yet he increasingly fails to convince that, as before, he is the author of Russia’s political activity, is still a leader who takes responsibility for everything. In short, the Kremlin writers who are putting together the script for 2018 now worry that Putin has become nobody’s leader, that he is now more akin to the centerpiece of the nation, a fixed entity against which other forces collide. 

At the end of 2017, it is now possible to talk about a system that operates without Putin. He is not acting in sync with his inner circle. Each feels uncomfortable with the other, as the president grows more stingy about intervening to resolve the power struggles within the elite. Putin has never been interested in classical “politics,” seeing it as an empty term. That means that the apolitical president does not take definite positions on issues—making it easier for decisions to be taken in his name.

Nowadays, we increasingly have the impression that “the boss is away.” The management of Russia that is formally exercised by the president has been almost entirely taken over by his inner circle and the presidential administration, which has ceased being just a general staff and has turned into a player with its own special interests. To put it another way, the president himself has suddenly discovered that he is surrounded by “regents” with varying degrees of power. Russia is developing a regime of collective regency.

The higher we go in the presidential administration, the less we find administration and the more we see pure palace rule. The modern-day “court of his imperial majesty” regards anything that is in the state budget or can be made liquid as its property, whether that be governmental positions, territories, threats, people, or infrastructure. Meanwhile, Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy head of the administration, is guarding Putin’s Russia until Putin returns. He is the overtime manager. He waits for orders but none come.

The system is not only functioning without a fully functional Putin, it also lacks any strategic direction. A lot of noise is made about “hiring younger people,” but in actual fact no political rejuvenation is taking place. The new staff don’t have a program they can work to and are strategically useless under the current model. Only when the political environment thaws will they acquire real power. We hear the word “technocrat” being used about young Russian government officials, but what that term really means is that these people are part of the transition into the post-Putin Russia. 

The atmosphere inside the government apparatus is becoming more fearful, and the rivalry with the security agencies is intensifying. Arrests taking place in Kremlin circles are not carried out according to “Putin’s plan,” ordered from above, but are rather a manifestation of competition for power.

If we are to understand Russia’s pre-election landscape, we must first understand the Kremlin’s 2018 agenda. The near-term political goal is not about getting to a post-Putin Russia, it is about planning a transition. But it’s worth noting that the discussions are all about preserving the system, not about preserving Putin. (Putin himself, it should be said, is sure to have his own opinion on this matter.) Unlike Putin, this is a system determined not to disappear, and it is run by champions in the art of survival.

The skills of the election strategists are now facing an especially stern test. For three presidential elections in a row, in the elections of 2004, 2008, and 2012, they have worked to make the campaigns a politics-free zone in which the outcome was fully predetermined. Navalny is now working hard to spoil this script and to make the forthcoming vote a real contest again. He has done this by choosing to put himself forward and resolving to fight to the end. Whether or not Navalny is registered as an official candidate, he has succeeded in making the election a proper political process once again. 

Even if Navalny is not registered, it will still be a boost to his campaign, and he will be able to mobilize a wide range of people. In that case, he will face some difficult political questions: where to direct this powerful force and how to recommend that they vote. That’s where a political opening exists for the liberal socialite Ksenia Sobchak. If Navalny is refused registration, she may gain political momentum by winning over his electorate. However, there are big question marks over her political durability and as to whether she could do anything like Navalny has done in creating a national structure. 

The start of the 2018–2024 presidential term will be the occasion for deal-making at the highest level. The deal will be about more than the interests of a tired older gentleman, nor can it rely solely on the Kremlin circle of “regents,” who have too great an interest in gaining control over Putin as he weakens. 

The deal that is made will have to have a firmly fixed objective and a deadline, which may be 2024, for when a new kind of politics returns to Russia and there is real strategic planning for the future. That may even be the moment that Putin regains his own political face, a face he has rubbed away with years of bad decisions.

Even while Putin is an undeclared candidate and Navalny is an unregistered one, the race between them is approaching a culmination around the New Year period. Soon the state will either have to try to register Navalny for the election or refuse him. Either option could trigger a crisis.

In either eventuality, Putin will have to fight against the unregistered Navalny Party, which consists of tens and hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens. This will be the main conflict of the campaign—not the one between Putin and Navalny, but the one between Putin and Navalny’s supporters. These people are not just the supporters of their candidate but the most determined supporters of transition, of Russia’s passage into a post-Putin future.