Who will get to power in Russia after Putin is gone?

25 June 2022, 10:26 AM

The alleged health problems of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin are fueling debate over what kind of change will happen to the Russian government in the event of the tyrant's death or incapacity. Who will assume power in the Kremlin once the dictator is gone, and what will happen in Russia next?

NV explains the procedure for the transfer of power in Russia and summarizes the opinions of experts and Russian opposition on what this process might be like.

Who's next after Putin?

The current version of the Russian constitution doesn’t mention the death of the president. However, in Article 92 of this document there is an explanation that the President of the Russian Federation "terminates the exercising of their powers ahead of schedule in the event of…":

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  • their resignation,
  • inability to exercise their powers due to health reasons,
  • their removal from office

In all these cases, when the formal leader of the country is unable to fulfill their duties (obviously, this includes the death of the president), the duties are temporarily performed by the head of the Russian government – currently, the post of prime minister is held by 56-year-old Mikhail Mishustin.

That’s the line of succession that Russian opposition figure, Ilya Ponomarev, a deputy of the State Duma from 2007-2016, gave in a May interview with Radio NV while commenting on rumors about the possible transfer of power in Russia to Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Nikolai Patrushev.

“It is impossible for Patrushev to 100% replace Putin because Patrushev is a nobody – from the perspective of the Russian system of power," Ponomarev said.

There is a constitutional procedure that is hard-coded: if anything happens to Putin, Mishustin, the country's current prime minister, must take his place. And if something happens to Mr. Mishustin, then the third in line to power will be Valentina Matviyenko, head of the Federation Council. The fourth will be Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the State Duma of the Russian Federation,”

The planned transition of power in Russia may begin with a change of the prime minister.

At the same time, the election of a new president of the Russian Federation, in the event of the early departure of the old one, should take place no later than three months after the termination of the powers of the previous head of state.

And the Federation Council must set the date for the elections within 14 days of the sudden removal/death of the president. If the upper house of the Russian parliament does not complete this task in time, then a date for early elections is set by the Central Executive Committee.

Whoever takes on the role of interim president in the event of Putin's death or incapacity, according to the same Article 92 of the Russian constitution, will not have the right to:

  • dissolve the State Duma,
  • call a referendum,
  • make proposals for amendments and revisions of the Constitution of the Russian Federation

Will Putin ‘appoint’ a successor?

In Russia’s case, it’s just as likely there will be a “surprise” departure from the formal procedure for the transfer of power, says political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya in her column in The Moscow Times.

Stanovaya is a freelance researcher at the U.S. think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the founder and director of the analytical company R.Politik. According to her, a lot depends on "whether Putin's departure is unexpected, or whether the president has time to present and prepare his successor."

The latter option – if the successor is known in advance – significantly narrows the room for maneuver for the Russian elites, regardless of whether they are open to change or are conservatives, Stanovaya thinks.

“The more time there is to prepare a successor, the more manageable the situation will be, provided that the overall situation in the country remains relatively stable, and the support of the president himself is high," Stanovaya says.

"In this case, Putin and his successor will have significant political capital at their disposal, which can be conditionally be called the “ideology of Putinism”.

Until now, this ideology has largely ensured the stability and manageability of the regime from a social point of view. But revising “Putinism” with a living Putin and a chosen successor is a serious, even risky, task."

The first scenario – Putin leaving unexpectedly and without preparing a successor – leaves much broader options, with "a lot depending on factors beyond Putin's control, while the role of the political elites will grow significantly," notes Stanovaya.

Russian journalist Mikhail Fishman is a former editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of the magazine Newsweek. In a recent interview with Radio NV he expressed confidence that Putin doesn’t intend to leave or "name" a successor, as he did with Dmitry Medvedev earlier.

“It was clear even before the war, but now it’s completely obvious that there won’t be such a situation in which Putin says “That's it, I'm leaving, and here is my successor” as he did in 2007," Fishman says.

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“This situation will never happen again. Everyone understands this. Probably, when we say “successors” we should think of those who will be standing “closer to the flag”, as with Stalin’s death.

It is probably relevant to speculate about Putin’s successors in the same way as we did about Stalin's successors. But the speculation about successors as happened fifteen years ago, with Medvedev, is now absolutely pointless."

Russian political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky, however, suggests that the system of power in the Russian Federation at the moment is “stable enough to close down and choose a successor in the event of Putin’s death.”

“It is clear that this will no longer be Putinism, gradual changes will take place, as the erosion of the political regime is inevitable," notes Preobrazhensky in a recent interview with NV.

"When Stalin died the system didn’t go into disarray, and I think that Putin’s system is quite capable of being like that as well."

The planned transition of power in Russia may begin with a change of the prime minister.

According to Stanovaya, that's because he is the one who will get an ideal starting position for a successor by formally receiving the status of acting president in the event of Putin's early departure.

“The current prime minister Mikhail Mishustin, for all his merits (Putin often praises the government and demonstrates satisfaction with the quality of his work), currently looks like a politically weak candidate for successor," Stanovaya points out.

"A figure who isn’t close enough to the head of state and who hasn’t managed to escape his “technocratic” status. Therefore, one can understand those who believe that if Nikolai Patrushev is appointed prime minister tomorrow – then he is the successor."

However, such an obvious scheme is “not naturally attractive to Putin,” explains the political scientist and in her opinion, a successor may also appear by bypassing it.

Especially if the prime minister, on becoming the acting president, simply performs the role of overseeing the legitimacy of the transition of power. In this case, Mishustin will not necessarily become the favorite in the upcoming presidential race.

Besides that, the choosing of a successor may take place behind Putin's back. Back in late May, the independent Russian-language news outlet Meduza wrote that the topic of “the future after Putin” is being actively discussed in Russian power circles.

“It’s not about overthrowing Putin or a planned conspiracy," one of Meduza’s sources said.

"But there is an understanding, or a preference, that in a fairly foreseeable future he will not govern the state.”

 According to another source, even potential candidates for thepresident's successor are being discussed behind the scenes in the Kremlin. Among them are Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, and First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Kiriyenko.

Preobrazhensky notes that Putin's daughters may also be on this list.

“He has related female successors, who may also be on that list. It’s no secret that the Kremlin has been testing the option of a female successor for fifteen years now," Preobrazhensky says

"They’re hardly adding either Ksenia Sobchak or Valentina Matvienko to the lists of possible candidates in the presidential race by accident."

How might Russia’s policies change after the departure or death of the dictator?

The question that worries most Ukrainians and world politicians is whether Putin's successor will be ready to continue the war unleashed by the dictator against Ukraine.

Political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky, in an interview with NV, suggested that “if Putin is gone by tomorrow,” the war will not end abruptly, but will “freeze”.

“The one who wins this rat race (the race to be the successor) will decide what will happen next,” Preobrazhensky says, describing two possible scenarios.

"I think one course of action that might happen is: “war to a victorious end” and another is: “let's somehow freeze this thing and try to reach an agreement.”

And this will definitely be one of the important topics with regard to who becomes Putin's successor, Preobrazhensky believes.

Some of the Russian elites are seriously determined to try to mitigate the consequences of the war after Putin's departure.

“The president messed up, but then everything can be fixed, and we will somehow come to an agreement (with the West and Ukraine),” said one of the sources of Meduza close to the Presidential Administration and the Russian government.

However, Putin's successor may be even more radical than the current Russian dictator, says Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov.

“After Lenin came to power, there was no liberalization of the regime," he noted on Radio NV.

"Lenin was a bloody dictator, we have already forgotten about this, because after him there was a much bloodier dictator – Stalin. There were many episodes like that in Russian history: one conservative monarch was replaced by an even more conservative monarch and the first one got forgotten for being a conservative and was perceived as moderate.”

Therefore, according to him, Putin's successor as president of the Russian Federation could be "a much more radical person who will finally declare a real war, carry out a real mobilization, and use tactical nuclear weapons.”

“Basically, he will do everything that Putin himself is afraid to do,” Portnikov adds.

Stanovaya explained in detail in her column that the course Russia takes after Putin will depend a lot on the state of “Putinism” itself.

“Putin’s death today could lead to completely different political consequences than if he died in a year.”

Stanovaya says that given the strangling of the opposition, the current abnormally high ratings authorities have and the unity of the population around the state – the current dominant part of the establishment will be able to seize the initiative after Putin’s death.

“The regime will become tougher, more conservative, more repressive and even more radically irreconcilable,” predicts Stanovaya.

There is a chance that Putin’s rule might come to an abrupt end during a period when the level of support for the authorities decreases, his pro-war consolidation evaporates, there is an increase in social irritation and an accumulation of economic difficulties. In this scenario “the capabilities of the security forces will be more limited, and the voice of the ‘modernizers’ and big business and state business, will be more noticeable.”

“In this case, there will be conflict not just over the collective choice of a successor, but also their election and rule,” Stanovaya says.

However, the chances for reforms and a change in Moscow’s course will arise precisely when the situation crumbles politically and economically. This will be when the population becomes anxious, the systemic opposition revives, and Putinism becomes too toxic for everyone, Stanovaya says.

“Hence, a hypothesis arises – the earlier Putin’s sudden departure occurs, the higher the chances of a conservative revenge. And vice versa – the longer he “stretches out,” the weaker “Putinism” may turn out to be at the moment when the time of transition comes,” Stanovaya comments.

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