Putin and the Art of Stepping Down Gracefully While Keeping Grip on Power
MOSCOW — Several years ago, for reasons that have never been explained, President Vladimir V. Putin vanished from the public eye for more than a week, sending the Russian capital into a tizzy over his fate.
When he popped back up, Mr. Putin brushed off the episode, saying, “It would be boring without gossip.”
But the brief absence did prove something about Russian politics: After 20 years leading Russia, Mr. Putin oversees a political class perhaps more fearful of his absence than his presence. That factor, more than anything else, helps explain why he used his state of the nation address on Wednesday to announce a surprise reorganization of the government four years before he is scheduled to step down.
But it also raises a question that Mr. Putin himself seems to be wrestling with: Can he ever step away from power without sending the rigid Russian political system into convulsions and endangering his own legacy and, in extremis, even his own security?
“For most autocratic leaders, it has been quite dangerous to leave power,” said Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Things have to be going extremely well, and the system has to be stable, to get out without any repercussions.”
The usual autocrat retirement package is unappealing: death, jail or exile. That trend has played out in Russia, too, where Mr. Putin, at 67 and a grandfather, has ruled longer than any modern Russian leader other than Stalin. In the 100 years before Mr. Putin took power on New Year’s Eve, 1999, only three of nine leaders retired. The rest died in office or were executed.
Mr. Putin’s constitutional overhaul suggests a plan to stay safe and avoid triggering infighting if, as now seems likely, he does not seek to remain as president when his current term expires in 2024. The key is to signify that he does not intend to cede power after he leaves the presidency.
“He cannot just ask somebody else to keep his seat warm,” and step aside safely, said Sergey Belanovsky, a sociologist and close observer of Russian politics.
In the Russian system, alliances of business oligarchs, generals, governors, intelligence officers and oil company chiefs compete for power and money. Mostly out of public view, they disseminate kompromat, or comprising information about each other, and arrange for rivals to be arrested or driven into exile.
Mr. Putin, rather than the courts, arbitrates these disputes, preventing escalation. Were he actually to retire, abdicating this role, “there would be civil war,” said Konstantin Gaaze, a sociologist at the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences, who specializes in Russian patronage networks.
Fights have already come to light. In 2017, for example, a former economy minister and member of a liberal wing of Russian politics, Aleksei V. Ulyukayev, became embroiled in a feud with the powerful director of the state oil company, Igor I. Sechin.
Ultimately, he was convicted of accepting a bribe of $2 million from the oil company that came in a holiday gift bag that also held homemade sausages. Mr. Ulyukayev, who is serving an eight-year sentence in a penal colony, says the charge was trumped up.
The changes announced by Mr. Putin seem designed to maintain his perch as the arbiter of these disputes. They would drain power from the presidency and split it between the Parliament and a newly empowered body called the State Council, weakening the presidency before any potential successor occupies the post.
Another change might safeguard Mr. Putin against foreign legal action, such as lawsuits related to the downing of a civilian airliner in Ukraine by a Russian missile in 2014, if he steps aside from the presidency. Mr. Putin suggested a measure to prohibit enforcement of treaty obligations if they violate Russia’s Constitution.
Mr. Putin could take any of the proposed new positions — prime minister, head of the newly empowered State Council or leader of a majority party in Parliament — and still keep himself safe and the political system stable while ceding the presidency, said Mr. Gaaze, the sociology professor.
Under a law adopted in 2001, Mr. Putin would be granted immunity from prosecution and would receive retirement pay of 580,035 rubles a month, or about $9,500, if he stepped down.
On paper, he has only modest savings: an apartment, a garage, three Russian-made cars and a type of Russian camping trailer called the Scythian, according to his 2018 property declaration.
Of course, his wealth has often been rumored to exceed that by tens of billions of dollars, and he is said to have built an immense villa for himself in Crimea.
So rather than his material well-being, his greatest concern is likely the political overhaul.
“One thing is clear: Putin has proposed a shift from the current system, which is too centered on the powers of the president, to a more complicated system of checks and balances,” Vladimir Milov, a former deputy minister of energy and opposition leader, wrote, allowing him in essence to control a successor president.
On Thursday, Mr. Putin addressed a hastily convened committee drafting the constitutional amendments, shedding additional light on the plan. The changes, he said, were intended to transform Russia’s political system into one that is “more open.”
Possibly hinting at his own future role, he stressed the expansion of the powers of the State Council. The committee should think carefully about its scope, he said. “This is delicate work,” he said. “We should pay careful attention to how we write into the basic law the State Council, its prerogatives and so forth. This is a very important element.”
Signaling an intention to retain authority is important to dial down any succession scramble for the power Mr. Putin holds today, Mr. Belanovsky, the analyst, said of the strategy.
He cited a Russian proverb: “You cannot sell the hide of a bear before it’s killed.”
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