The Russian elite is engaged in an indirect debate about a future without Putin. Until recently this was unthinkable - or in any case unmentionable - , but the issue is rapidly becoming the central fascination of the Muscovite ruling class, observes Mark Galeotti. Although it doesn't pose a direct threat to Putin's position, the discussion demonstrates the insecurity and dysfunctionality of 'late Putinism'.

reception russia day 12 june 2019Medvedev and Putin celebrate Russia's national day on June 12 2019. Photo

 by Mark Galeotti

Any thought that Russia is simply a top-down authoritarianism, shaped by a brooding president’s masterplan, should be dispelled by the upsurge in open and indirect debates currently taking place in the higher echelons of the country’s elite. They demonstrate three things: that there are real differences in opinion, that this is a system where policy emerges from competitive lobbying, and that Vladimir Putin seems unwilling or unable to resolve the main issues of the day. Put together, they demonstrate the increasing dysfunctionality of 'late Putinism.'

Much of the debate is, after all, openly or implicitly about 2024, when Putin’s – constitutionally - last term of office is meant to end, and the whole debate as to his future and his system’s. Will he step down in favour of a successor, carve out a new position for himself, rewrite the rules to stay in power? Until that issue is resolved, no long-term political strategy can be elaborated, leaving the stakeholders and political technologists relying on tactical gambits and pitching their own favoured solutions in the hope one gets the boss’s approval.

Back in July, Vyacheslav Volodin, formerly Putin’s political fixer in the Presidential Administration and now speaker of the State Duma, began the campaign in earnest by proposing that parliament’s powers be expanded and with them those of the prime minister, making another ‘castling’ like the 2008-12 Medvedev/Putin job-swap conceivable. Of course, that in the process Volodin’s own position would be strengthened was hardly incidental.

Putinism without Putin

This year has, after all, seen debate on Putin’s future, and even a post-Putin Russia, rapidly switch from being unthinkable – or at least unmentionable – to becoming a central fascination for the Muscovite political class. In many ways it was another of the president’s former political managers, Vladislav Surkov, who signalled this shift back in February. A fanciful pseudo-philosophical rumination on ‘Putin’s Long State,’ that suggested the present system could last for the rest of the century, actually implicitly brought to the fore the notion that Putinism did not necessarily need Putin.

Increasingly, a consensus seems to be emerging that whoever replaces Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister would be considered the heir apparent. It doesn’t seem to matter that the loyal Medvedev has been written off time and time before, that there are no signs Putin is sharpening his axe, and that in any case it is unlikely the president would want a successor with a strong power base of his own. This is, rather, one of those debates which acquire their own momentum. The question is whether it can also become a self-fulfilling prophesy.