by Mark N. Katz
It is not clear when, or how, Vladimir Putin will give up power (as opposed to only pretending to do so as he did during the 2008-12 Medvedev interlude). Nor is it at all clear who will follow him as the most powerful politician in Russia. What is fairly certain, though, is that whoever succeeds Putin will likely denounce him or radically alter his policies. Indeed, the successor will probably do both.
This will definitely occur if, despite all Putin’s preventative efforts, Russia finally undergoes democratization. But it will also probably occur in the far more likely event that the Russian political system stays the same, and Putin’s successor rules in much the same manner as the president does now.
This pattern has been in place at least since the 1917 Revolution. Lenin excoriated the policies of both Tsar Nicholas II and the Provisional government he overthrew. Stalin did not denounce Lenin, but he radically altered his domestic policy (replacing the mild New Economic Policy with the horrific collectivization of the First Five Year Plan) and eliminated much of the top leadership appointed by Lenin. Nikita Khrushchev, in turn, denounced Stalin, ended many of his harsh policies, and got rid of many of his supporters. Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin later denounced Khrushchev’s “hare-brained schemes” and changed his policies. The next two leaders, the aged and ailing Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, were not in office long enough to do much in this regard. Mikhail Gorbachev, though, would denounce Brezhnev’s rule as the “era of stagnation” and embark on a reform policy aimed at correcting its problems. Boris Yeltsin, in turn, denounced Gorbachev’s efforts as inadequate and launched an even more ambitious program of liberalization.
Putin continued this pattern when he came to power. Although he was Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Putin and his cohorts have never ceased to boast about how he has made things so much better in Russia than they were in the 1990s. Dmitry Medvedev, though, did not conform to this pattern. While making a few changes, he never denounced Putin, whom he appointed as his prime minister. In retrospect, Medvedev’s break from tradition was actually a sign that he was not fully in charge. When Putin resumed the presidency in 2012, though, he did not return the favor. Putin and his aides reversed or criticized several of Medvedev’s policies — especially Medvedev’s decision to allow the 2011 UN Security Council Resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya, which Putin says the West used as a pretext to overthrow former President Muammar Qaddafi.
The Medvedev exception notwithstanding, what has happened after almost every Russian leadership change since the 1917 Revolution suggests that something similar will highly likely occur when Putin leaves office for good, even if the current authoritarian system survives. Indeed, the logic of the situation makes this practically inevitable. Even if Putin appoints his own successor — and especially if he does not — the new leader will soon find that he must denounce Putin. Part of what keeps Putin’s cronies loyal now is that there are many who can either hope (however unreasonably) that he will become the next president, or that his patron will. Once a new president has been appointed, though, he will have to deal with many disappointed rivals and those dependent on them. The new president will thus feel vulnerable, and thus seek to protect himself by replacing Putin loyalists with his own supporters. Once this process begins, the old Putin loyalists will attempt to stop it. The new president will then have little choice but to undercut them all by a wholesale denunciation of the Putin era and its “failed policies.” The more Putin’s policies can be discredited, the harder it will be for those people the new president claims are responsible for those policies to remain in office.
Ironically, while democratization would lead to Putin being heavily criticized, it would also afford a better opportunity for his close associates to remain part of the political system, despite their inevitable disagreements with the new president. By contrast, Putin’s success at stifling any progress toward democracy will make it more difficult for those who are not part of the new president’s entourage to do so.
But while his eventual successor will almost surely denounce Putin and change many of his policies dramatically, what cannot be foretold is how he will change them. If tensions between Russia and the West continue (as they undoubtedly will for as long as Putin remains president), the new leader may blame Russia’s increasing economic stagnation and dependence on an ever more powerful and threatening China on Putin’s needless pursuit of an antagonistic policy toward the West. On the other hand, relations with the West may be so bad by then that the new president would blame Putin for making insufficient concessions to Beijing to secure what by then will be desperately needed Chinese military and economic support for maintaining Moscow’s increasingly isolated and beleaguered authoritarian order.
The only real certainty is that whoever succeeds Putin will lay the blame for all of Russia’s problems squarely on Putin, as will those who support Putin now but who will eventually need to prove their loyalty to the new leader in order to gain promotion or just keep their jobs.