Vladimir Putin’s options after 2008

President Putin will step down in 2008 – as he himself has stated repeatedly. The only question is where he will go. Judging by his approval rating, authority, and influence, the Putin factor will continue to dominate Russian politics, regardless of election results.

It’s an interesting detail: politicians and analysts are busy discussing scenarios for Russia after 2007 (the Duma election) and 2008 (the presidential election), assessing the changes of various parties and candidates – but their complex configurations leave the chief factor outside the brackets. In case anyone has forgotten, that factor’s name is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

His role in current politics is immense; it doesn’t even fit within the framework of the broadest presidential powers. Whether by inherent Russian tradition, or according to the Constitution, or due to his actual or attributed achievements, he has come to fulfill the function of “our knowledge, strength, and weapon.” It’s not surprising that when pollsters ask whom people would like to see as head of state after 2008, two-thirds of respondents answer sincerely: Putin.

But Putin will go – as he himself has stated repeatedly. The only question is where he will go. Judging by his approval rating, authority, and influence, the Putin factor will continue to dominate Russian politics, regardless of election results.

According to legislation passed in 2001, an ex-president can spend the rest of his days enjoying life to the fullest – with a staff of aides and a pension equivalent to three-quarters of his salary as president. But when Putin steps down, he’ll only be 55 years old. Given that he’s fit and healthy, and has vast experience and influence in Russia and abroad, it’s unimaginable that Putin would retire to water his flower-garden and watch television in the evenings. Of course, he could become a back-seat driver, whispering instructions to his successor – but the question is how long the successor himself and the elite clans behind him would be interested in such “parental guidance.”

Obviously, the role of ambassador – whether extraordinary and plenipotentiary or for special assignments – wouldn’t be substantial enough for Putin. Moreover, contemporary Russian politics still hasn’t regained its former global reach; we have neither the ability nor the desire to shoulder the burden of regulating the problems and conflicts of others. Besides, the political leaders with whom Putin has established close and trusted relationships – George Bush, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair – will all be gone within a few years. Gerhard Schroeder and Silvio Berlusconi are gone already. And establishing contacts with the leaders who replace them will be a task for Putin’s successor.

Leadership roles in various international organizations – that’s a fairly widespread form of employment for retired politicians. As a rule, they’re medium-caliber politicians. For example, NATO secretaries-general have included the former foreign affairs ministers of the Netherlands (Jaap de Hoop Scheffer) and Spain (Javier Solana), and a British defense secretary (Lord Robertson). The last two European Commission presidents have been former prime ministers of Italy (Romano Prodi) and Portugal (Jose Manuel Barroso). At the United Nations, an unwritten rule reserves the post of secretary general for representatives of developing nations which aren’t part of any military blocs. Russia, unlike the USSR, has no Warsaw Pact – and taking some sort of “long-playing” post in the CIS would demolish Putin’s international standing rather than enhancing it.

From time to time, rumors have predicted that Putin might become the chief executive of a state monopoly – Gazprom, RAO Unified Energy Systems, or Russian Railroads. This topic has become particularly popular since Gerhard Schroeder, former German chancellor and friend of Putin, took up a senior position with the North Western Gas pipeline project. Then again, Putin hasn’t shown any interest in moving into business, and presidential administration officials have been representing the state’s interests successfully in the “people’s monopolies.” Still, if mergers and acquisitions create some sort of mega-monopoly with real claims to world leadership, it would require a leader of a different caliber.

Putin has indeed said that he’ll step down in 2008, but he’s never said he won’t be back in 2012. So, in the intervening four years, he’ll have to remain somewhere close to the center of government – otherwise his own strict hierarchy of governance might not let him back in. He might become prime minister, for example; and with Putin as prime minister, it wouldn’t really matter whom he chooses as his presidential successor. Otherwise, he could establish some sort of new socio-political structure and play a “father of the nation role” – a spiritual leader and wise judge. None of the Kremlin’s pseudo-parties are suited to that purpose. But surprising everyone with impromptu moves is quite in character for Putin.