Interview published on the Bear Market Brief website on October 11th 2017.
To say the very least, Russia has entered a period of interesting politics. Governors are being fired, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny remains a thorn in Putin’s side in the run up to the presidential election in March. What to make of all of it? Bear Market Brief spoke with Tatiana Stanovaya, director of the analytical department of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. She is a specialist on Kremlin politics and a regular contributor to the Carnegie Moscow Center and to Russian outlets including Republic or Politkom.ru.
Interview conducted by Fabrice Deprez. It has been edited for length and clarity.
We wanted to jump right in and start with Vladimir Putin. Just a few days ago, he again declared that he had not decided yet whether or not he will be a candidate in the presidential election… why do you think he does that?
In all his years in power, Vladimir Putin has always acted this way: the most important political decisions are announced at the last moment. That’s not only the case for presidential elections, but for any significant political decisions, like the appointment of high-ranking officials. For example, in 2007, Dmitri Medvedev announced that he would be Putin’s successor only in December, three months before the election. And no one knew it would be him.
This is because Putin always fears that his decisions could be hampered by some external factors and, for him, the later he announces it, the more control he has.
This time however, the situation is different. We expect that Putin will declare his candidacy in December, but it could be earlier. That’s because a new team focused on internal politics recently arrived in the presidential administration and for them, it’s more comfortable to start working [on the presidential election] as early as possible. So Putin might say he’s running in October or November, but the official candidacy will be announced in December.
A difference with all previous campaigns is that Putin is not going to “elect himself” but rather, he is going to be elected by his team. It’s an interesting difference, which is due to the fact that Putin is gradually removing himself from domestic politics. He isn’t interested in dealing with elections, in dealing with anything that, in his eyes, distracts him from real work. So, he delegates this job to his administration which, of course, would like to start the campaign, at least in an informal way, early.
How do you explain this loss of interest in internal politics?
Since 2014, Putin has been dealing mostly with foreign policy: the situation in Crimea, sanctions, oil prices, Donbass, Syria… this all lead to Putin practically ceasing to handle domestic and economic matters. If we remember, in 2006 and 2007, Putin was basically personally managing Gazprom. Gas conflicts, gas relations with Europe… Putin was involved in all the details.
That’s not the case anymore. He’s not interested in this, in dealing with the budget, with social issues, with inflation… He’s doing geopolitics, and this boring routine he passed on to his circle, to the people he’s been surrounding himself with since his first years as president.
I think that, today, Putin believes that his next mandate will be his last. And I think that he has told this to his close circle. There are lots of signals and rumours from the Kremlin, in the press, that Putin has said he will leave in 2024. But there are lots of doubts about whether or not he will still hold this position in two or three years. What he thinks now is one thing, but in six years… six years is a long time. The situation could be completely different by then.
What do you think a post-Putin Russia could look like? You’ve mentioned a theory about Putin creating a new position, above the presidency but more symbolic, something akin to the “Minister Mentor” in Singapore… do you still think that’s a possibility?
I think that, right now, several scenarios are being discussed. All these scenarios are linked to a constitutional reform that is likely to go through in the coming years. For example, the creation of a “gossovet,” a State Council.
And yes, indeed, there is also a scenario which would see Putin holding some higher position that would not give him formal leadership but would allow him to maintain influence in the political system. This would be a sort of transition period where Putin could delegate power to a successor and, in the first years, act as a kind of insurance in case of elite conflict or social problems.
As of today, no decision has been made about this, but I know that there are several groups of experts and institutes that are currently preparing some scenarios. Putin will make his decision in the first two or three years of his next mandate I think… he’s not going to decide right now. And a lot is going to depend on the state of the relations between Russia and the West at that moment, it’s a key factor that will impact the evolution of the power structure inside Russia.
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