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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Succession Crisis

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President Vladimir Putin's statements at the Valdai Discussion Club meeting last month in Sochi and his decision to head the United Russia ticket in the December State Duma elections suggest that Russia may be facing a serious succession crisis. It is too late to amend the Constitution in order to allow Putin a third consecutive term. At the same time, strengthening the prime minister position at the expense of the presidency is also not a good or likely solution to the succession problem.

In lieu of Putin leaving public office, the best and most likely solution now is a brief, perhaps one-year interregnum during which Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov holds the presidency. Putin, after becoming prime minister, could then return to the presidency after Zubkov resigns for "health reasons." Following Putin's election, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov could become prime minister.

The problem, even for such a brief interregnum, is that the Constitution gives the president control over the power ministries, including the military, various secret services and law enforcement agencies. Most important, the president is commander in chief of the armed forces and appoints their top commanders. Accordingly, he also appoints the members of and heads the Security Council.

Control over the siloviki is becoming more important as factional infighting among the elite increases as the elections approach. This was made clear last week when members of the Federal Drug Control Service, who took part in the investigation of Federal Security Service officers involved in the Tri Kita furniture smuggling scandal, were in turn arrested. The arrests prompted the drug control service's director, Viktor Cherkesov, a close Putin ally, to warn of an "war of all against all" among various siloviki factions within their "corporation."

But there is more.

In addition to nominating the candidate for prime minister for confirmation by the Duma, the president nominates candidates for the head of the Central Bank, the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the Supreme Arbitration Court and the prosecutor general.

The president also nominates candidates for the local heads, who are subject to confirmation by the regional legislative assemblies. These chief executives in turn appoint half of the parliament's upper house, the Federation Council. In addition, the president directly appoints his representatives to the seven federal districts, some members of the Central Elections Committee and one-third of the members of the advisory, but nevertheless influential, Public Chamber.

Moreover, the president enjoys procedural rights and policymaking powers, such as attending Cabinet meetings, introducing legislation to the parliament, signing treaties with the regions and with foreign powers and defining the nation's foreign policy.

In short, the president is the alpha and omega of the country's political system.

The problem of supreme presidential power could be resolved if Putin, in the capacity of prime minister, were to perform the president's functions without formalizing this practice by constitutional amendments. Putin's presidential successor would sign the papers, but Putin would make all of the key decisions. The old Soviet Communist "party-state" ran the power ministries despite their constitutional status as government bodies. In the same way, the prime minister's office would control the power ministries despite their constitutionally mandated subordination to the president. Even this would be problematic, however, because Putin and the next president would be not only de facto but de jure violating the Constitution.

The worst scenario, however, would be a regime split or constitutional crisis, in which in would be unclear who is really running the country.

The only way out of this problem seems to be if Putin plays a secondary role to the president. At the same time, however, Putin could still influence and contain the president by virtue of his authority, popularity and the legislative weight that United Russia will have with its likely majority in the new Duma. By accepting the post of prime minister and the leadership of United Russia, Putin would establish the viability of countervailing centers of power within the political system. In this way, Putin could expand what Georgetown University professor Harley Balzer calls "controlled pluralism" or a post-Soviet version of what Sovietologists called "institutional pluralism."

Indeed, Putin appears to have decided that stability after his second term requires a two-party system dominated by United Russia. At the Valdai meeting, Putin ruled out the single-party model found in pre-transition Taiwan and South Korea, no less the party-state system of communist and fascist regimes.

The more pluralistic, single-party dominant system, however, can preserve stability and economic development as it has in Japan, Mexico and postwar Italy and Germany. Putin's continued verbal support for a viable party system and the social democracy of Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov's A Just Russia party indicates that secondary parties will be permitted.

Without stamping out pluralism, Putin as prime minister could use United Russia's majority both to legislate and to contain his presidential successor, who would agree to "unplug" the presidential administration, reducing its capacity to drive the policy agenda.

Yet even this might not eliminate the risk of a regime split and power struggle among the elite. Ironically, it is Putin's consolidation of super-presidential and siloviki power that now complicates the search for a solution to his own and Russia's seemingly eternal succession problem.

Gordon M. Hahn is senior researcher and adjunct professor at the Monterey Institute for International Studies and author of "Russia's Islamic Threat."