Russian Leadership Changes: How it was, is and how it might be

  • Rusia
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  • 3 January 2022

Now that 2022 is finally here, it means Russia’s next presidential election is just two years away. The way has been paved for Vladimir Putin to run again if he chooses. The will he/won’t he? question is a favourite of pundits as is speculation of a potential or likely successor. Russia’s next leader will be immensely consequential, as will the time when he or she takes over.

It’s certainly possible that by the end of the year, Putin will give some indication of his intentions. It’s even more possible that new potential candidates could emerge as a standoff with the West and Ukraine goes on and the economy continues to struggle.

Before geopolitica looks at those possible successors, a historical context of Russian leadership changes is due. Far from a crystal ball, history still gives us decent indications of what we can expect the end of Putin’s long presidency will look like.

In the twentieth century, Russian leaders either died in office after long-standing illnesses (Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko), were forced out whilst in good health (Kerensky, Khrushchev, Gorbachev), or were assassinated (Nicholas II). Yeltsin resigned in ill health and handpicked his successor – we’ll come back to this – whereas Lenin (and one or two others for that matter) could barely function at the end.

Putin, as far as we know, is in good health. He is in favour with the elites and often settles squabbles between the different factions. An assassination attempt is also extremely unlikely.

The nineteenth century was a different story of absolute monarchs, but it does contain another large hint. Alexander I – with no children to takeover – handpicked his successor. He chose his brother Nicholas I to succeed. Nicholas I wasn’t expecting to inherit the throne and swore allegiance to his elder brother Konstantin, which then created uncertainty and allowed the Decembrists to make their move, but as we know well by now, they were crushed and sent packing to Siberia.

That kind of leader and transition, as well as that from Yeltsin to Putin, is where the Kremlin is looking to emulate.

Putin will, in all likelihood, personally handpick a chosen successor. There most likely won’t be a post Stalin power struggle among the elites. Like Yeltsin, he will probably handpick that person near the very end of his presidency. Considering Russia’s polarised society, he will likely choose someone he believes can handle a sensitive power transition, stave off any potential rebellion from below and unite the different factions of Russia’s elite. More than that, and considering Russia’s long term economic outlook, he will hope that person is able rule over a period of relative peace and prosperity.

Nicholas I oversaw a period of peace, increased economic development and a growth in the power of the state, not unlike Putin in some respects. Whilst not a complete enemy to Russian liberals and Westernites of the day, Nicholas I ruled through an ideology any Russia watchers know well: Autocracy, Nationality and Orthodoxy. Alexander III reaffirmed this responding to his father’s liberal reforms. Putinism – whatever it is – has embodied some of its language and traits responding to his predecessor who (re)introduced liberal democracy and free market capitalism to Russia.

This is particularly significant when we consider what the Kremlin’s two biggest fears are: people on the streets and economic catastrophe. Avoiding both after Putin leaves office will be central to holding the Russian Federation together. Putin’s chosen method of that is encouraging loyalty to the nation state, which has been dubious at best, among Russia’s many regions and ethnic groups, through the championing of a patriotic history that selectively borrows from periods of a strong state and central figurehead.

Now we know what to likely expect  – there is no guarantee, of course – we have selected a few possible contenders that *could* replace Putin if he decides not to run in 2024 (or 2030).

Mikhail Mishustin: The Taxman

It’s worth remembering that Putin and Dmitry Medvedev both served as Prime Minister before becoming president. Mishustin’s appointment to the role in 2019 came as a surprise to most, but his relative unknownness fuelled speculation that he was a serious contender to succeed Putin in 2024. Being PM instantly increases his chances, as does the fact that he has a reputation of being an efficient worker and safe pair of hands. His popularity has grown but being PM during the pandemic may work against him later. Adding to that, Mishustin has few political backers besides Putin. Moreover, his previous job was the unexciting one of overseeing Russia’s tax collecting. He digitised that process, but like that job, he’s deemed bland by many.

Sergey Shoigu: The Soldier

Russia’s defence minister, he is one of the most popular politicians in the country. He is seen frequently with Putin in public and on holiday in Tuva, his native region. His role as head of the military, especially now, makes him an important figure, and being of military ilk puts him in greater favour with many factions of Russia’s elite. Plus, the increased focus on military patriotism in the past decade or so suggests he is a serious and symbolic contender. Briefly a governor of the Moscow region, his popularity comes from bringing rebellious regions back into Moscow’s orbit in the 1990s. His main problem is age: he’s three years younger than Putin and his tenure would be short-lived and therefore, potentially weakened.

Sergey Naryshkin: The Spy

Former KGB, head of Foreign Intelligence and a former Duma Chairman, Naryshkin ticks all the boxes of what some in Russia call an ‘effective manager’. Besides these, he has also held a series of other government posts and knows the system inside and out. Naryshkin also chaired the Historical Truth Commission, a symbolically important role that’s gone hand-in-hand with rewriting Russia’s national history. Much of that glosses over the role of the secret police and state repressions. A publicly mild-mannered individual, Naryshkin brings very little baggage (besides claims of a plagiarised dissertation).

Sergey Sobyanin: The Showhorse

Moscow’s Mayor has presided over a refurbishment that made Moscow into one of the world’s finest cities. Moscow’s high standard of living is complimented by clean, well paved streets, solid infrastructure, beautiful and numerous parks, bars, shopping centres and cafes that rival other world cities. Sobyanin also defeated one Aleksey Navanly in an election. Moscow’s budget is by far and away the largest of any region in Russia and Sobyanin has a lot to show for it. That’s equally the problem, however; the rest of Russia wants to live like the Muscovites and would have high expectations.

Dmitry Medvedev: the comeback kid?

Admittedly, this gets unlikelier with each passing day, but the former president has been a loyal foot solider for Putin. Further, and despite being immensely unpopular, he still holds an influential government post. There are also few other so-called reformers in the mix and Medvedev would equally represent continuity. Another interesting point to consider is if Putin decides to mirror what Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev did (step aside but continue to play an important role in the background). Medvedev is a useful person to fill in and be second fiddle. He’s the only other person alive to have done the job, and was also then something of a caretaker president.

Alexey Dyumin: The  bodyguard

The governor of the Tula Region is probably the least known of all included in this list. But most Russia watchers will know that it wasn’t long ago when Putin’s former bodyguard was being floated as a potential successor. Granted, that speculation has died down, particularly in 2021, after his connections to a company called Irvin were revealed. Irvin is a main supplier to the Circle of Kindness Foundation, which is funded by a wealth tax and helps children with rare illnesses. His closeness to Putin matters a lot – though – as does as does his former role of heading the GRU during the annexation of Crimea, where he reportedly played a key role.

A Final Word

To be clear, it could be none of these. There’s at least two years of Putin to go, probably more. And between now and 2024, a lot of Russia news is going to happen. There are also other names – like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Deputy PM Andrei Belusov, Sergey Morozov and the Finance Minister Anton Siluanov – that many include in the mix. Each possibility is as unlikely as the next.

Until we know for certain what Putin’s plans are, detecting who is unknowable. What is clear is that the number of potentials and size of the inner circle with any sound knowledge of what and who next, will be very small. And Putin is intent on keeping it that way.

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