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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Once Putin Leaves Office, He Won't Return

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The elevation of the virtually unknown Viktor Zubkov as prime minister has complicated the issue of President Vladimir Putin's successor. Pundits had long debated the various merits of the two first deputy prime ministers, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, but ostensibly they are now out of the running.

Some analysts believe that after four years as the new president, Zubkov would allow Vladimir Putin to return as president in 2012 without violating the existing Constitution.

In the interim, Putin could play a powerful role behind the scenes, possibly through a directorship of Gazprom or some other government agency.

Yet the powers of the president today are such that any incumbent would be predisposed to reduce the power of rivals, even if they are as popular as Putin. Indeed, ruling Russia as president with Putin and his cohorts in the background would surely be intolerable, even for a long-term acolyte such as Zubkov. If Putin steps down, he will most likely never return.

Moreover, suppositions about an interrupted third term for Putin are illogical from a close analysis of the country's history. No ruler, however powerful, has ever made such a comeback. Rather, once power has been relinquished, the former ruler has found it impossible to reacquire it.

Admittedly, the tsarist regime was based on a hereditary system and leaving office was not an option. The last tsar, Nikolas II, was overthrown following the February Revolution. But in the later months of 1917, as well as during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, there are pertinent analogies of leaders who were removed or gave up power and tried to return without success.

The first example is Alexander Kerensky, the pivotal figure in Russia after the February Revolution, who served as the minister of justice and minister of war and ultimately the prime minister of the provisional government. During the October 1917 Bolshevik uprising, Kerensky fled from Petrograd in the car of the U.S. ambassador, which flew U.S. flags. He made his way to the headquarters of the Northern Front in Pskov, where he recruited a Cossack army of several hundred troops. On Nov. 11, 1917 -- four days after the Bolshevik takeover according to the Gregorian calendar -- moderate socialist elements organized a revolt in Petrograd.

Both efforts to remove Lenin's group failed ignominiously. Kerensky's troops, led by General Pyotr Krasnov, simply melted away when they came into contact with Bolshevik workers, and the former prime minister left Russia for exile in Britain.

One Soviet leader who did not complete his term in office was Nikita Khrushchev, today regarded -- perhaps charitably -- as one of the more enlightened figures of the Soviet era. On Oct. 16, 1964, an official statement in Pravda announced that the central committee plenum had relieved him of his obligations as first party secretary because of his advanced age and poor health. Khrushchev had indeed reached the age of 70 a few months earlier, but he was in good physical condition.

Khrushchev quickly became a non-person and simply vanished from the pages of the Soviet press. His public appearances ceased abruptly. He spent his remaining seven years writing and recording his memoirs, trying to justify a series of rash agricultural experiments and belligerent actions on the world stage, not least the provocation of a missile crisis in Cuba two years earlier. Only in the 21st century has the appearance of his complete memoirs offered a justification of his leadership.

His successor, Leonid Brezhnev, perceived among the Soviet hierarchy as a weak compromise candidate, was able within a few years to emerge as a strong leader simply by using the power structures available.

Mikhail Gorbachev is another example of a figure removed from office in Moscow following his resignation as Soviet president in December 1991. In some ways, he is a better example since, like Putin, he successfully used both national and international media to bolster his image as a reformer and pioneering leader, undeterred by a volatile political climate in the latter years of the Cold War.

After the Soviet Union was dissolved, Gorbachev attempted a return to power during the 1996 presidential election, but he received only 0.5 percent of the vote, a humiliating rebuff for his reputation. As in 1991, his nemesis was Boris Yeltsin, who successfully used the advantages derived from the office of the presidency to ensure success over his rivals. Yeltsin managed this feat despite having been written off by many analysts. The army was engaged in a losing war in Chechnya, and the president was suffering from poor health.

These examples are worthy of Putin's contemplation. Over the past eight years, he has increased the power of the presidency while advancing his own acolytes to high posts. To date, however, that authority is invested in the office rather than an individual.

Admittedly, Putin is far more popular than were Kerensky, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev. But the new president, whether Zubkov or another candidate, will have ample opportunity to use the advantages that come with the elevation -- use of the Federal Security Service, armed forces and other power ministries and control over the bulk of the media. In addition, as long as oil prices remain high, the nation's economic boom will most likely continue, giving the next president the basis for guaranteed high popularity ratings.

Thus, Putin may very likely be underestimating the ease with which the next president -- with the support of a powerful Kremlin clan behind him -- will be able to "steal the show" by exploiting the enormous administrative resources available to the president. The irony, of course, is that Putin did so much over the past eight years to create a strong presidency -- the power vertical -- and this could be the very reason that will prevent him from returning to office.

The lessons seem clear. If Putin chooses to leave office, as he has stated will be the case next spring, then his era will be officially over.

Several presidential contemporaries in former Soviet republics have opted to violate their Constitutions, enabling them to serve for three or more terms, including Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. It would be surprising if the Russian leader had not contemplated such a course as well.

David R. Marples is professor of Russian history at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is author of 12 books, including "The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991."