Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is “not planning any constitutional reforms for now,” even before the final tally in a presidential election that critics have dubbed a predestined spectacle.
Putin laughed off questions about whether he will run again in six years, when he will be 71 years old. Russia’s constitution limits service in the Kremlin to two consecutive terms.
“What, do you think I will sit until I’m 100 years old?” he chuckled.
Jokes aside, before Russians headed to polling stations Sunday in an election marred by allegations of vote-rigging, Moscow was already abuzz with speculation about what Putin might be planning after his election victory.
“There’s a growing sense that this election is less about the future as it is about the end,” Valery Solovei, an academic at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, said ahead of voting.
To run again in 2024, Putin would have to alter the Russian constitution. Some analysts say he may shake up the whole system and fashion a state or revamped federation council that he would chair until his death.
Will he go in for such an exercise in radical change? Or appoint a tame placeholder, as he did in 2008 when he led Russia as prime minister, returning as head of state later?
“I don’t think he has made up his mind. He doesn’t know himself,” a Kremlin insider, who requested anonymity, told VOA. “He likes to postpone decisions, generally. He will keep all possibilities open, and delay. He has at least three years before he has to start making up his mind, giving him three years to implement any decision.”
He added that Putin has only two options: Rewrite the constitution, or switch jobs and become prime minister again. Asked if Putin might consider a third option of simply retiring, the insider chuckled. “He’s not going to do that,” he said.
Others with connections to the Kremlin said Putin may decide he has to retire — if only semi-permanently. He won’t want to end up a geriatric president like the long-serving communist leader Leonid Brezhnev.
“He won’t want to become the butt of bad jokes like Brezhnev,” said Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Political Studies. “I am sure this will be Putin’s final term and that during it, he will choose a person he can recommend to the Russian people.”
Nonetheless, Markov sees a role for Putin, even after he relinquishes the top position “maybe as speaker of the upper house or as chairman of a revamped federation council.”
In six years, Putin may well face the same dilemma his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had to confront. Ailing and increasingly in poor shape, Yeltsin was desperate to relinquish power but feared doing so would leave him, his family and his inner circle of advisers and plutocrats vulnerable to retribution.
In the end, he resigned, after oligarch Boris Berezovsky fashioned a new governing arrangement, with Putin coming in as successor. The Yeltsin family was left untouched. But to the surprise of Berezovsky and other oligarchs and businessmen who had profited under Yeltsin, they were unable to control Putin. He turned on them, stripping them of much of their wealth and businesses, and imprisoning some.
Nervousness among elite
Despite the swagger of government officials Monday, relieved they had accomplished in the election what Putin wanted — a voter turnout of at least 70 percent, with at least a 70 percent vote for him — there’s nervousness among the elite at what the next six years will hold for them.
The last time there was uncertainty was in the years leading up to 2008, when Putin had to decide whether to rewrite the constitution or trade places with his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Power struggles were triggered within the Kremlin, as major players maneuvered to ensure their own safety or jockeyed for the chance to succeed Putin, if he decided to quit.
By delaying a decision, there were casualties in the factional struggle for supremacy — something Putin seemed to encourage — allowing those who thought they could succeed him, or wanted to anoint a successor themselves, to start intrigue.
By 2006, to Putin’s irritation, “a close-knit group of kindred souls was beginning to establish an independent existence in the corridors of power,” wrote Mikhail Zygar in the book All the Kremlin’s Men. Putin cracked down, reshuffling the ambitious prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, and making clear to the Kremlin’s inner circle who remained boss.
Markov doesn’t discount that happening again. “Those who have power and property are smart and tough people — sometimes cruel — and they will fight for power,” he said. “But I don’t think Putin will tolerate it getting out of hand, especially when the country needs to be unified in the face of the hybrid war the anti-Russian West has launched against Russia.”
Analysts are wondering if Putin may reshuffle the top political players quickly, which would indicate what might be on his mind for the future. Once again, they believe, Putin may play factions against each other, giving one faction its head, only to cut it down to size.
He could favor the old guard, or nurture the sons of the old guard, who, like their parents, are divided roughly between a security faction (the siloviki) and rivals who gravitate toward the more technocratic Anton Vaino, Putin’s chief of staff.