How Vladimir Putin can retain a leadership role after leaving office

What might Vladimir Putin do after 2008 if he leaves but still wants to stay? Can any mechanisms for leadership without holding power work in Russia? In theory, there are several ways for Putin to remain active in public life.

What might Vladimir Putin do after 2008 if he leaves but still wants to stay? Can any mechanisms for leadership without holding power work in Russia?

In theory, there are several ways for Putin to remain active in public life.

Putin as politician: after 2008, he moves from the presidency to any other state office. The problem is that in the present-day structure of governance, no office but the presidency itself provides real leverage to influence the situation. We’re reproducing Russia’s traditional model: one “sovereign” – with everyone else as “serfs,” regardless of the rank they hold.

Former prime ministers offer some revealing examples: Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yevgeny Primakov, Sergei Kirienko, and Sergei Stepashin have managed to find places within the system, but only as cogs in the machine. Their influence extends to one sector of the system, at best – but not the spirit and essence of the system. And the former presidents, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, haven’t fitted in at all: the system has left them by the wayside.

Putin as just an ex-president: after leaving office, Putin simply stays out of state affairs – like his two predecessors, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. But there are some problems with this scenario. First of all, there’s his age. He’ll still be under sixty, making complete retirement doubly insulting for an active man. The second problem: is Putin really all that confident about the absolute stability of the system he has created, the course he has charted, and so on? The answer is obvious: no, he isn’t confident. And leaving it up to others to judge his success or failure clearly isn’t part of Putin’s philosophy.

Putin as leader of the nation: this option would suit Putin best of all. He could move out of the state apparatus, while still remaining a figure of equal significance to the new president. Even greater significance, perhaps. But is this achievable?

There are various options for exercising this type of leadership.

First: the charismatic leader. This was Boris Yeltsin in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A politician who primarily relies on the people’s support. Yes, Putin does have the people’s support, and all he has to do now is ensure that his final year in office isn’t marred by any failures that affect substantial numbers of Russian citizens or have a serious impact on Russia’s international standing. There is little reason to believe that we are facing any unavoidable disasters in the year ahead.

However, there are two problems here. Firstly, the charismatic leader is usually an incoming leader; the people see this leader as representing everything the incumbent government hasn’t been able to deliver. Secondly, demand for this type of politician tends to arise during periods of drastic change. This directly contradicts Putin’s wish to maintain Russia’s current policy course. Perhaps he wasn’t joking when he once remarked that he would be prepared to become an opposition leader; he might decide to make this a reality and position himself against his successor. But this would require some time to pass, at least, so that the successor can do something that offers material for criticism.

The second option is the moral leader. This kind of person doesn’t strive to gain power; he stands aside from politics, but his words carry weight for the authorities and ordinary citizens. The authorities may not ask him who should be appointed as interior minister, for example, but if he expresses the opinion that so-and-so would make the best interior minister, his opinion would be heeded and seen as decisive.

But this option runs up against a number of other restrictions, the most important one being is that while Putin may be described as standing for a certain kind of ideology, he doesn’t really represent any particular social morals. The two aren’t necessarily synonymous.

And what if it isn’t moral leadership? Then there’s the static “father of the nation” image – a leader who is loved, if only because he presided over a new golden age. But this is more of a memory image, a leader from the past, not a leader for the present and the future.

Another restriction: corresponding to the image requires a certain amount of fading into history, away from immediate events. But then the image work might contradict current efforts to maintain the existing policy course and structure the system. Moreover, this image doesn’t guarantee any ability to actively influence the system. And Russia’s present-day system does not allow for any public political activity outside the hierarchy of governance. This is a trap, in a way: if any attempt is made to create such an opportunity especially for Putin, there’s always the risk of numerous other “leaders” trying to take advantage of the loophole – enough to make the whole system unstable.

Consequently, an active image requires a certain amount of formalization. A party might serve the purpose (Putin as leader of the majority party), or the Church (Putin as the wise elder, approached for spiritual direction), or a dissident movement (Putin as some sort of cross between Archpriest Avvakum and Andrei Sakharov).

Aside from institutions, this also requires resources: financial resources, state administration resources, media resources, and content.

Let’s look at the content resource. What this requires is a “playing-field,” so to speak, where there are no players – or where the players are substantially inferior. This field would represent Putin’s uniqueness, significance, and value for the nation. There could be several potential niches.

Putin as the one who expresses the “common opinion.” But Russian society is already so stratified that common opinion is only possible on a few issues: law and order, patriotism in the abstract sense (love for the Motherland in general), reminders of Russia’s European identity – or calls for caution with regard to the West, if necessary. According to the VTsIOM polling agency, citizens see Putin as expressing the interests of contradictory social groups: 71% of respondents say he represents “negative” groups (the special services, Yeltsin’s Family, the oligarchs, the lumpens, and so on), while 78% say he represents “positive” groups (ordinary people, the middle class, everyone, the academic and cultural elite, the intelligentsia, and so on).

Essentially, the problem can be formulated as follows: after leaving office, Putin should become a “father of the nation” whose leadership powers are based on support from the overwhelmin majority of the population and the most influential part of the elite. In practice, this means being the one and only politician who could win any election at any time, should he choose to run.

Putin is simply a good person – someone people want to trust. Putin generally elicits respect (39% of respondents), hope (30% – even in September 2006, with only 18 months in office remaining), trust (22%), and liking (20%). This indicates that the following image might be workable: Putin guiding his successor in a gentle, “fatherly” way, while also exposing society’s vices and the corrupt bureaucracy. He could also provide specific assistance to specific people and agencies in fighting abuses within the bureaucracy.

The media resource is a great thing. A recent VTsIOM poll asked respondents whom they regard as the Russian elite, and the results are revealing: half of the Top 20 are senior state officials, and the overall ranking is full of politicians, celebrities, television hosts, and a few oligarchs. Only last year, Dmitri Medvedev was in 75th or 82nd place; now he is ranked third, between President Putin and Alla Pugacheva.

State administration resources are strongly correlated with financial resources – since the two are closely linked in Russia, as everyone knows. There could be some serious problems with using these resources. It would be dangerous to rely on the assumption that all of the present-day elite will continue to need Putin as a “moral leader.”

If Putin attempts to claim equal significance with the next president, this would cause confusion among citizens – and within institutions, threatening the effectiveness of the whole system, which is already quite vulnerable. If Putin attempts to stand behind the next president, this could result in the elite deciding that one of them is unnecessary – even harmful. And no matter who the successor is, his team is unlikely to be 100% identical to Putin’s team.

There’s another national tradition we should bear in mind: the Russian people are inclined to like whoever is in power – so the successor’s popularity is sure to rise (initially, at least). Consequently, Putin needs some guarantees that would enable him to remain an effective politician after he leaves office. It would be good to have these guarantees backed up by some mechanisms. Could such a mechanism involve a controlling interest or the post of chairman of the board at Gazprom? Unlikely. What about a consortium of Gazprom, BP, ENI, E.on, Exxon-Mobil, and so on? Despite all the power of fuel corporations, this would be more likely to provide business influence, not moral and political influence.

No other office or role in Russia is comparable to the presidency. And the Russian authorities have usually “outsourced” moral leadership – Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Tolstoy, Likhachev. But no retired politician has ever become one of these moral leaders. All the same – what if it happens now? Throughout his years in power, Putin has demolished stereotypes and earlier rules of the game. Everyone said he’d never beat heavyweights like Luzhkov and Primakov, but he did. Everyone said he’d be forced to let Chechnya go, but it’s still part of Russia. Everyone said that in the wake of Yeltsin’s almost-zero approval rating, his successor would never win public support – but Putin’s popularity is sky-high. Everyone said that the oligarchs would run the country forever, but look at them now. Everyone said that support for Putin would start to fade after the monetization of benefits, but it’s still rock-solid. So perhaps Putin will be able to do the unprecedented in the field of leadership as well.