What to Expect After Putin’s ‘‘Re-election?" By Nathan Richmond
On Sunday, March 18, 2018, Russians voted overwhelmingly to "re-elect" President Vladimir Putin. The date was significant. Originally, the election was schedule for a week earlier, but the State Duma rescheduled the election to March 18th to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea, an immensely popular event in Russia.
From the beginning of the campaign there never was any doubt that Putin would prevail. The only question was by how much would he win. His campaign’s goal was to secure a 70% voter turnout in every region, and for him to win 70% of the vote. He did not disappoint.
According to the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation (CEC) in their official report of March 23, 2018, 67.5% of registered voters voted, and of those who voted, Putin won 76.69%. The other 7 candidates (profiles found here) received between 11.77% to 0.65%.
While the results were never in doubt, the fairness of the election overall has been contentious. According to the March 19, 2018 report of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights that monitored the election:
The CEC responded, strongly defending the process and stating that:
Putin’s Agenda: Domestic and Foreign Policy Issues
There is widespread speculation Putin will focus primarily on domestic policies in an effort to raise Russia’s standard of living. Those who believe so cite Putin’s statements on the need to improve technology, education, and Russia’s infrastructure. While it is reasonable to believe this, it is unlikely to occur.
In the absence of free, fair, and competitive elections, what gives Russian leaders legitimacy is a powerful presence on the world stage. Thus, rather than retreating into an isolationist foreign policy and focusing on rebuilding their economy, Russia will likely command a more significant role in international affairs.
First, there is unfinished business in Ukraine. With new presidential elections in Ukraine scheduled for 2019, Russia will likely engage in massive efforts to have a pro-Moscow candidate elected.
Second, there are new opportunities emerging in Europe to stoke nationalist, anti-EU sentiments in Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and other countries in an efforet to undermine the EU.
Third, there is unfinished business in the Middle East. Syria is one obvious place and Russia’s cooperation with Iran on behalf of the Assad regime may lead to more cooperation between the two countries. Russia has struck up a new friendship with Turkey and this may eventually lead to Turkey’s withdrawal or expulsion from NATO, perhaps a first step toward Putin’s long-term goal of that alliance unraveling. And Russia and Saudi Arabia are about to conclude a long-term (10-20 years) oil pact, cementing a Russia-OPEC alliance to boost oil prices by cutting production.
Finally, Russia is not only maintaining its presence in North Korea, it is expanding its influence by making massive investments there and offering to mediate the dispute between Pyongpang and Washington.
Putin: A Leader for Life?
The 1993 Russian Constitution mandated that the president’s term of office would be 4 years and that the president could serve only two terms consecutively. Putin was elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2004. In 2008 he stepped aside and became his protegé’s, Dmitri Medvedev’s, Prime Minister when Medvedev was elected president. A 2008 constitutional amendment changed the term of office from four to six years, but did not change the limit of two consecutive terms.
Putin then was elected for a six year term in 2012 and re-elected in 2018. Putin is 65 years old and will be 71 when his current term expires in 2024. If he wanted to continue to lead Russia after 2024, he would have to effect a constitutional change lifting the ‘two consecutive terms’ limit, or perhaps step aside and assume the role of prime minister and govern in that capacity once again.
At his news conference following his 2018 victory, Putin stated that he was not considering any constitutional changes. Asked by a reporter if he contemplated running in 2030, Putin responded that the question was ridiculous and insisted that he was not going to govern until he was 100.
While Putin may not be contemplating governing at 100, it is likely, in my view, that he will follow the example of China’s President Xi and have the legislature remove the term limit. From a wide range of the Russian political spectrum, there have been calls to no longer hold presidential elections and to merely anoint Putin as Tsar.
Now that Putin has secured his fourth term, there is some speculation in the western media that he will begin to groom a successor. Again, as in the case of believing that Putin will focus on domestic rather than international issues, this is a case of wishful thinking. Putin will not groom a successor because to do so will be dangerous to him and his inner-circle, should his ‘designated-successor’ choose to succeed him before Putin is ready to relinquish the reins of power.
Instead, we should expect Putin not to groom any successor. As I have suggested elsewhere, Putin’s most likely successor will be someone whom we have not yet heard of, is unlikely to follow Putin’s policies, and in fact is likely to repudiate Putin and Putinism. Thus, we may then have an opportunity to reset relations with Russia when Putin finally exits the political stage, but that is unlikely in the near future.
Nathan Richmond is Professor of Government at Utica College