Elections and the successor: an interview with analyst Alexander Rahr
Alexander Rahr: “A Shakespearean drama is unfolding before us – with Putin in the starring role. A powerful president, beloved by the people, is obliged to leave office because he doesn’t want to act unconstitutionally. Putin himself has described this as his greatest historical achievement.”
Russia is facing a parliamentary election, and everyone is focusing on one question: what will Putin do? In this interview with “Stern” (Germany), Russia expert Alexander Rahr (German Council on Foreign Relations) discusses what the Russian president is concerned about, who might become his successor, and why progress on democratic transformations has been so difficult in Russia.
Question: What is the significance of this election for Russia’s political future?
Alexander Rahr: This isn’t really a parliamentary election – rather, it’s a plebiscite on Putin remaining in power. Not as president, but in some other role. If voter turnout is high and United Russia gets its anticipated share of the vote, Putin will be crowned with the glory of victory – not only in this election, but over the past eight years. And then he’ll continue his policies, regardless of what office he holds.
Question: Do you have any idea what Putin’s policies will be like after the parliamentary election?
Alexander Rahr: Putin hasn’t made a decision yet – he’s considering various options. He is most likely to become the leader of the ruling party. This will enhance his control over the parliament. Through the party, he could control the government to some extent – and control the new president as well. But in order to achieve this, United Russia must secure an unequivocal and convincing election victory.
Question: Putin has a great deal of public support. Is this real, democratic support or a propaganda trick?
Alexander Rahr: Of course, there is a certain amount of manipulation in the state-controlled media, in favor of Putin and United Russia. But the fact remains that a substantial part of the population does support the Russian president’s policy course: 70% to 80% of Russian citizens are satisfied with his policy of stability and don’t want a change of government.
Question: Is it possible to predict who will replace Vladimir Putin as president?
Alexander Rahr: There are three alternatives worth taking seriously. First option: Putin will manage to stay on as president after all. As some experts have speculated, he might resign early and let someone else be the acting president for three months. Then he could run for president again, and this would not be unconstitutional. Strictly speaking, he would not be seeking a third consecutive term. But this approach isn’t entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Russian Constitution.
Second option: a strong new president is elected and continues the current policy course. This would be in keeping with Russia’s wishes, but it would drastically reduce Putin’s chances of becoming president again after a certain interval. Third option: “Putin’s puppet” – Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov – is elected president. He would hand the job back to Putin within four years, at most.
Question: So it looks like electing a strong new president is the most acceptable option. If that happens, could Putin protect himself against meeting the same fate as Boris Yeltsin – complete retirement from politics?
Alexander Rahr: Yeltsin was lucky to escape persecution. Besides, he was too old to interfere in politics.
But even a strong new president could only be elected at Putin’s pleasure. One potential candidate for this role is Sergei Ivanov, former defense minister, now senior deputy prime minister. He’s been Putin’s understudy for eight years, rising to power together with Putin. But Ivanov probably wouldn’t seek to help Putin reclaim the presidency as soon as possible.
A Shakespearean drama is unfolding before us – with Putin in the starring role. A powerful president, beloved by the people, is obliged to leave office because he doesn’t want to act unconstitutionally. Putin himself has described this as his greatest historical achievement: the fact that the transfer of power from himself to someone else will take place strictly in accordance with the Constitution. Such a democratic change of government is unprecedented in contemporary Russian history.